In continuing with my movie reviews of requested films (see last week’s review of 1999’s Bicentennial Man, which I reviewed at the request of Audre Myers), I’m reviewing 2021’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain at the request of my Aunt Marilyn. She recommended the film, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the eccentric title character, enthusiastically.
I love Benedict Cumberbatch—one of my favorite current actors—and just about anything about eccentric creative types in Victorian England; needless to say, I loved this film, which details the quite tumultuous, tortured life and mind of Louis Wain, the man responsible for normalizing the keeping of cats as pets.
Viewing the film was a bit tricky at first. As far as I can tell, it is only on the Amazon Prime Video service. When I would pull up the movie on there, the only option I could see required an Amazon Prime membership, but my aunt assured me I’d be able to rent it (probably all I had to do was click on that subscription button and I’d be given the option to rent).
It occurred to me that I might still have access to Prime Video through my ex-girlfriend’s account on my Roku; sure enough, I was able to watch the movie—for free!—using those surreptitious means.
Logistical nonsense aside, I should probably review the film, rather than talk about how I had to access it. All this blogging is going to my head.
Louis Wain is “polyhobbyist” and eccentric who finds himself in the unenviable position of financially supporting his many sisters, none of whom, it seems, are all that marriageable. Louis is an illustrator part-time for The Illustrated London News, where he mostly covers agricultural fairs (and, at the beginning of the film, has just had a run-in with a bull). Besides being a talented artist, he writes an opera based on harmonies he “created” and which lacks a plot, and is obsessed with electricity. Louis believes that electricity is the fundamental force in the universe that moves time forward, and that negative electricity is responsible for human conflict. Conversely, positive electricity brings happiness and harmony.
Despite their straitened financial situation, the Wains hire a governess, Emily Richardson, to assist in the education and rearing of the younger Wain girls. Emily is herself quite quirky, and soon Louis falls hard for her.
This being Victorian London in 1880s, however, a respectable society family like the Wains can’t intermingle with the help, and after Emily embarrasses the family by entering the men’s lavatory at the theatre (she goes to console Louis, who retreated from the theatre due to his own mental demons), she is released from her duties by Louis’s overbearing sister, Caroline. Louis protests that he does not care about society conventions, and marries Emily, bringing further scandal to the family, but much happiness to the couple.
After a few blissful months at their new country home, Emily is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. During that bleak time, they find a stray cat, Peter, and adopt it as a pet (at this time in England, apparently, cats were kept as mousers, but not generally as pets). As Emily’s condition worsens, she encourages Louis to keep painting, and to submit some of his portraits of Peter to The Illustrated London News. Sir William Ingram commissions Louis’s cat pictures for a two-page spread in that year’s Christmas issue, and the images are an instant success, spawning demand for more cat pictures.
Unfortunately, Louis neglects to copyright any of his images, so fraudulent reproductions of his work are rampant. This oversight further sinks his family into penury, and with Emily’s passing, Louis grows more and more disconnected from reality. The death of Peter some years later, as well as one of his sister’s commitment to an insane asylum due to intense schizophrenia, further plunges him into the weird inner recesses of his mind.
From his tortured mind, however, springs forth more and more cat images, of increasing quality and eccentricity. A streetcar accident puts him into a brief coma, during which he has visions of 1999, which inspires futuristic cats. Those are made into toys, but a German U-Boat sinks the merchant vessel carrying, causing Louis’s potential financial salvation to sink to the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Despite his talent and several popular volumes of cat pictures, he is unable to meet his family’s financial obligations, and even with reduced rent at one of Sir Ingram’s properties, the family must sell possessions to make ends meet. An earlier, brief trip to New York City, where Louis hoped to enlighten Americans about the housecat, failed, and Louis returned to England to a dead mother and sister, both having succumbed to influenza (during the First World War, so likely the dreaded Spanish Flu).
Louis Wain cannot catch a break, and ultimately ends up in an asylum himself after a serious of mental breakdowns. A government inspector recognizes him from a train ride in 1881, during which Louis drew the inspector’s dog for free, and launches a national campaign to raise funds for Louis. These funds allow Louis to be moved to a better facility that allows cats.
The real Louis Wain passed in 1939 at seventy-eight, just a month shy of his seventy-ninth birthday, and two months before Germany’s invasion of Poland. Like his younger sister, it appears he suffered from schizophrenia, which some art historians have argued accounts for the psychedelic nature of his later work (I personally don’t subscribe to this view, but I’ll grant I have not studied it deeply). The film does a great deal to highlight his unusually tortured mind, and his unusual theories about electricity and its influence on the world (presaging the work of Marshall McLuhan).
Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual, delivers a strong performance as Louis Wain. The late Victorian English setting, which changes dramatically over the course of Wain’s life, makes for a charming opening to this quirky film, and the sarcastic narrator is very humorous in a dry, British way.
It’s a story about heartbreak and loss, but also about the power of art to change our perspective of the world. In the case of Louis Wain, he raised the esteem of cats in the eyes of the public, and his humorous images of cats and their cat society turned the forlorn mammal into the popular pet it remains today.
If you want to learn more about this remarkable man’s difficult but beautiful life, I highly recommend watching The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.