Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy and a cast of cats make an irresistible combination in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. Director Will Sharpe (Flowers) makes witty, poignant work of the story of English painter Wain, who specialized in exaggerated cartoons of wide-eyed felines from the late 1800s.
We first meet Louis (Cumberbatch) when he’s sketching animals at farm shows, selling pictures to support his mother and five sisters in Victorian London. His fortunes change in several respects when Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), the editor of the Illustrated London News offers him a position as illustrator — and when he meets his sisters’ new governess, Emily Richardson. While Emily is played by Cumberbatch’s junior, Foy, it’s interesting to note that in real life Emily was 10 years older than 23-year-old Louis, which was considered quite outrageous at the time. Either way, Louis’ awkward courtship with Emily gets the film off to a joyful start, the comedy heightened by the disapproval of his sister Caroline (a stern Andrea Riseborough). There’s a sense of two unusual minds meeting, and both actors put in sweet, funny performances that will win over audiences before a tragedy looms.
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Then comes a touching, pivotal moment that sews the seed of Louis’ feline fixation. After receiving bad news, he and Emily are at a loss for words, their future looking bleak. Then, a tiny mewing from the garden: a black and white kitten has appeared. Christening him Peter, the pair find great solace in a time when it was rare to keep a cat as a pet. Peter is eventually followed by a host of felines, and Louis’ cat portraits begin to take off. But as success grows, his mental health worsens, and the film becomes a brisk but sympathetic reflection on the challenges of grief and possible schizophrenia.
The supporting cast is familiar and notably diverse for a period drama: Adeel Akhtar is particularly engaging, while there are smaller roles for Taika Waititi and Asim Chaudhry, along with a surprising cameo or two. The sisters are well cast at various ages, if drawn with broad brushstrokes: this is Louis’ story, and his band of unwed siblings is often played for laughs.
The screenplay, from Simon Stephenson and Sharpe and story by Stephenson, makes an intriguing attempt to explore Wain’s other obsession — electricity — but doesn’t quite join all the dots. There’s also an opening narration from Olivia Colman that feels tagged on, while delivered with her usual aplomb.
But none of this takes away from the sheer charm of Louis Wain, and there’s no need to have an appreciation for Wain’s kitsch, anthropomorphized cat portraits either. This should play to the crowd who enjoyed the recent Tove, as well as 2017’s Professor Marston And The Wonder Women: all affectionate biopics of unconventional artists who eventually found their tribe. And after the calamity of 2019’s Cats, this is the film that cat fans really deserve.