Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in this true story of a Victorian-era newspaper illustrator who found fame and fortune drawing pictures of cats.

Scene from the film "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain"
Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Jaap Buitendjik/Amazon Studios)

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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Toby Jones

Writers: Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe

Director: Will Sharpe

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival


Sometimes a film just tunnels its way straight into your heart. It is an unnerving experience, especially for the film critic, to find yourself utterly surrendering to a movie almost from the moment the title card has vanished from the screen.

Yet here I am, totally in the tank for The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the true story of a late-Victorian-era newspaper illustrator who found fame and fortune drawing pictures of cats. Not lap cats or cats curled up by the fireplace, mind you, but cats in jackets and ties. Cats in ball gowns. Cats playing cards. And, yes, a half-century before Dr. Seuss, cats in hats.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who has by now proven he can memorably play just about anyone doing just about anything, stars as the artist Louis Wain, and we first meet the man on a train heading for London. He is intently sketching a picture of a bull — using both hands — blithely ignoring the fact that he’s covered with mud and his clothes are hopelessly askew, a condition that has resulted from him getting too up-close and personal with said bull.

But that’s Louis Wain for you — focused on what interests him and clueless to everything else. True, he is the sole supporter of his mother and five sisters, and his wages barely keep them all fed and housed. Still, he floats through life, eyes always raised and looking forward, seldom acknowledging the harsh realities that concern just about everyone else.

Of course, there’s a tragic truth behind Louis’s detached demeanor. He suffers from what appears to be a form of autism (although some art historians suggest Wain was schizophrenic), and endures frequent crippling bouts of anxiety. But there’s an innocent sweetness about him that makes him irresistible to his admirers — and especially to his sisters’ live-in governess Emily (radiant Claire Foy), who sees Louis as something more than a breadwinner or eccentric artist.

The two marry, and when Emily falls ill, Louis takes notice of the cat, named Peter, that keeps her company. He begins sketching Peter, and is soon filling entire sheets of drawing paper with cartoony images of the animal engaging in fanciful, human-like activities.

Those drawings catch the attention of Louis’s editor (Toby Jones, making a career of playing Victorian-era aristocrats), who engages the artist to create an 11-page spread of cats celebrating Christmas. With that, the career of Louis Wain is off and running, ready of not — and unfortunately, in many ways Louis is not ready, not at all. Nor will he ever be.

Director/co-writer Will Sharp, an award-winning British TV director, strikes a miraculous balance throughout the film, thanks both to his sentimental-but-never-cloying script and the commitment of his excellent cast. We realize early on that Louis will never be comfortable in life, and it’s clear his condition may well deteriorate even as his fame and success blossom. But Cumberbatch’s Louis, despite his crippling mental state, does not for one second surrender his dignity. His eyes glimmer with a combination of endless curiosity and perpetual panic, but he seldom lets the latter overwhelm the former. He is easy to love; impossible not to admire. The Hollywood buzz is that Cumberbatch will be Oscar-nominated for his splendid drama The Power of the Dog, but for my money, here’s your winner, right here.

You don’t have to be a cat person to love The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. All you need is a heart, and Louis has one big enough for the both of you.

Featured image: Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Jaap Buitendjik/Amazon Studios)

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