Synopsis: Victoria gentleman draws cats. (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain… more like The Electrical Performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain. How does the former Sherlock Holmes do it? Boomers have to accept that Daniel Day Lewis is in retirement and the zoomers have to accept that Timothee Chalamet needs to stay away from future Dunes to build his rep. Thankfully, we all have Benny C. to keep us enthralled with extraordinary performances.
This time around he is Louis Wain, a real-life Victorian illustrator who created an alterna-world of cats. The kitties are anthropormorphized and shown dressed in Victoriana, having tea parties and attending school. Hisss to both say real life cats. Like all of us, Louis tried to find happiness too; a quest complicated by mental illness.
The movie begins with a preface, homing in on Louis as an old man in an asylum –with Benny wigged out like Robinson Crusoe in a tangled long white wig and beard — as he manically rushes around turning his surroundings upside down, like me when I’ve mislaid my smartphone.
Soon enough, we are ushered back to Louis’ youth by an Olivia Colman voiceover to complement the Behold the Eccentric! vibe set up by director Will Sharpe. The year is 1881 and Louis is seen zipping hither and yon on foot and by train to cover fairs and events as an illustrator for newspapers. We are told that he is also a “polyhobbyist.” Benny’s expressions and body language telegraph a person in possession of a challenging brain and an expansive mind. He goes beyond the filmmakers’ tone of amusement at Victorian eccentricity.
Louis is the head of his family in his twenties; he supports his widowed mother and five sisters. When he isn’t working, he boxes and performs thought experiments. His oldest sister, Caroline, attempts to run the unruly household. Andrea Riseborough plays her as a harpy, shrieking like Madame Thenardier in Les Miz– I half expected her to start gamboling through the house belting out Master of the House.
So, what’s so electrical about Louis’ life? I mean we can only be so interested in seeing a Londoner weirding his way through each day. But Benny does make it interesting. And we are soon treated to a potential love interest for our everyday sort of hero…. the younger sisters need a governess. For some reason the mom doesn’t do much of anything– maybe that was a middle class British thing?
Enter Emily; excellent development for two reasons… Louis could use some romance in his life and Emily is played by the always excellent Claire Foy– the Queen herself! Emily is sensible, smart, observant and as we shall see, she warms and brightens Louis’ life like sunshine itself.
Louis and Emily bring the girls to a performance of The Tempest. The outing is both a field trip for the children and a quasi-date for Louis and Emily. Louis’ effort to make a good impression seems squashed when he is triggered by a loud and violent storm scene. He rushes away to the men’s lavatory. Emily finds him there and reassures him that his anxieties don’t make her like him any less. Some biddy sees them leaving the loo together which causes a huge scandal. Louis’ domineering oldest sister throws a fit, but Louis and Emily don’t care: they are in love.
Now this is all very nice, but the advertising campaign promised cats. It is not enough to see Louis’ amusing cat illustrations. We need real live cats in all their beautiful splendor and temperamental magnificence. Hmm, who’s that outside Louis and Emily’s window on a cold and rainy night? Behold a kitten! Thank goodness they take in kitty and christen him Peter. Louis is newly inspired and draws whole cities of cats taking over London. His illustrations are a hit and they all live happily ever after! Well, I wish…
The movie shifts tone from madcap to tragic as poor Louis suffers down after down: bad luck, bad business decisions and faltering mental health. Benny manages to keep the spirit of Louis alive in spite of the usual pastiche of dramatic breakdown scenes– brandishing chairs at family members, complete abandonment of personal hygiene. Benny breaks our heart in a harrowing scene in which a terrified and despondent Louis screams and weeps as he hallucinates that he is trapped in a room quickly flooding with water. Earlier in the film, he hallucinated/envisioned that his fellow restaurant patrons had turned into cats and that was all well & good. So what’s the best educated guess at his malady– schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression? Who cares? the movie seems to say; it was all very dramatic and photogenic.
Eventually we get back to the beginning with Louis as old-mad-genius artist in an asylum. We’ve seen this before- Hello, Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh & Bonjour, Isabelle Adjani as Camille Claudel. Is there any hope for Louis? Well, don’t expect too much because helpful pharmaceuticals are a long way off, but seeds of humanity crop up here and there and Louis’ fellow humans might offer some compassionate care, as he did when he was well.
Louis had been active in promoting humane treatment of animals with charities such as Our Dumb Friends League — yes, I know, it sounds insulting. In this case dumb doesn’t refer to Anglos who, say climbed into the fireplace to get warmer, but, rather, our speechless animal neighbors. And if they could speak, they might pause to consider their ally Louis and help the chap out by bestowing him with a share of recently eviscerated small rodent entrails. Or, hopefully, just a little head bunting or purring.