Image Credit: Amazon Studios
This review contains spoilers
It may be tempting to view The Electrical Life of Louis Wain as a sentimental biopic saturated with comical cats, kitschy colours, and a quirkiness that toes the line between pleasantly amusing and absurd. However, as the story unravels it becomes clear that underlying this canvas-worthy tableau is a much darker, more cutting exploration of grief, delusion, and madness. Director Will Sharpe not only recounts the life of Louis Wain but delves into his psyche, uncovering a deeply troubled man beneath the well-known illustrator of cats. The slight garishness of the film rapidly escalates into a searing depiction of mental illness and so, Sharpe movingly exposes the human portrait that hovers behind every cat Wain drew.
The film features a familiar cast, including the voice of Olivia Colman, whose narration nudges the story forwards and grounds it amidst the chaotic mind of Louis Wain. We are immediately plunged into his exhausting existence of supporting five sisters whilst pursuing an eclectic array of interests (illustrating, composing, boxing, and science to name a few). Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an outstanding performance as Wain, stumbling through life with no small degree of disarray, endearingly characterised by unusual quirks and awkwardness. Although initially feeling disorientating, it becomes clear that Sharpe wants to capture Wain’s internal experience and is ultimately setting the scene for a portrayal of mental illness which is inherently confused and fast-paced.
Into this busy reality tumbles Claire Foy (quite literally from inside a closet) as Emily Richardson, the governess hired by Louis Wain’s sister. After some suggestive eye-contact across the table, the relationship between Emily and Louis becomes the focal point of the film and within her, Wain finds a place of calm. Despite the obstacles their relationship faces, the unlikely couple fall in love, marry, and move into a house in the country. Here, they settle into a life of marital bliss, framed and captured by a mirror with hand-painted flowers on the rim. Foy and Cumberbatch gaze into this mirror, and as the camera focuses on their reflections, the audience is offered a snapshot of their happiness, an unforgettable image that remains with the viewer for the duration of the film.
The concept of framing moments as if they are paintings becomes a powerful motif in the film and recurs in scenes that Emily and Louis share. Following Emily’s catastrophic diagnosis, however, the content of these ‘paintings’ shifts. Suddenly, the warm, domestic frames are contrasted with darker snapshots, such as Cumberbatch seen through the darkened window of a train, or framed by a swimming pool tinged blue with grief. His childhood nightmares begin to surface and fracture the idealistic portrait he has created with Emily. In a particularly moving scene he tells her, ‘you make the world beautiful’, admitting his fear that if she were gone it would no longer be so. Ostensibly, the tone at this point would ordinarily become despondent, and Emily would fade away amidst a miasma of hopelessness. However, the unexpected entrance of Peter the cat (perhaps the most beloved member of the cast) invites a spark of joy back into the story, and into Wain, who begins to draw Peter for the entertainment of his wife.
After several scenes showing the couple’s devotion to Peter and to one another, it becomes clear that Emily is fading, and she succumbs quietly, but inevitably, to her illness. When Cumberbatch finds her, no words are needed to portray his immense pain. The devastation on his face speaks sufficiently.
Following this tragedy, contrary to what’s expected, there is a flurry of activity as Wain’s cat illustrations gain popularity and he catapults into renown. The film’s pace rapidly increases, transporting the audience through an unceasing whirlwind of felines, photographs, and fame but the garish colours feel unsettlingly discordant with the mourning process. When newspaper editor Sir William sees the illustrations, he asks Wain how he can create such joy when suffering so much, in which Sharpe poses one of the universal questions; is there a place for humour amidst pain? Wain himself notes the odd phenomenon that ‘the more intensely he suffered, the more beautiful his work became’. As the narrative progresses, however, a more apt question seems to be whether the drawings depict beauty at all, or whether something darker resides unacknowledged.
Moments of suffering become increasingly tumultuous, steeped in visions of drowning. This nightmare which becomes so tangible to Wain acts as an allegory for the emotional tempest within. Alternatively, scenes about Wain’s illustrations become increasingly vivid, as if the saturation is being gradually turned up. Sound and vision begin to blur. Cats are anthropomorphised through captions that enable them to speak, and humans conversely morph into cats before Wain’s eyes. Rapidly, his innocent hobby becomes nightmarish. Even the drawings that Wain produces verge on madness, using psychedelic colours and jagged lines that vastly diverge from his original drawings. This spiralling down into psychosis culminates in a kaleidoscopic vision of cats, which leaves the audience nauseated by cloyingly rendered eyes and whiskers swimming before their eyes. Suddenly, before we have even registered the shift, Louis Wain is not just a sweet, slightly odd man, but someone deeply affected by mental illness
In one particularly tender moment, Claire Foy says cats are ‘silly and cuddly and lonely and frightened and brave, like us’, and throughout the story, they come to reflect ourselves. Like Louis Wain’s cats, we all partake in mundane activities (riding a bike, drinking tea, reading – all of which are featured in the illustrations), but beneath it all there is something fragile and human which can’t quite be concealed behind layers of paint. Foy describes Wain as a ‘prism through which […] light refracts’, and accordingly. Sharpe successfully renders this film in rainbow colours which span the whole spectrum of life. This is not just a film about art, love, cats, or death, but powerfully encompasses it all. It is a confrontation with humanity.
Editor’s Note: This film was screened at City Screen York