The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Contender for worst title of this and any other year, this old-fashioned biopic covers both too much and too little of the life of the eponymous cat illustrator who ended up in a mental asylum. In addition, it’s afflicted by a breezy voice-over that you think belongs to one of the participants until all potential suspects have been killed off and you realise that for no apparent reason the narrative is being delivered by the ubiquitous Olivia Colman. The voice over also serves to cover up what director Will Sharpe fails to properly dramatize.

These deficiencies aside it’s a captivating story with some brilliant acting. Both Benedict Cumberpatch as Wain and Claire Foy as his wife Emily avoid the “strained seriousness” that they fell prey to in potential award-winning projects The Power of the Dog (2021) and a Very British Scandal (2021) in favour of more natural performances that bring both characters to charming life.

As well as inventor, all-round illustrator and amateur boxer Wain became the unlikely poster boy for an emerging generation of cat lovers. The movie also touches on some aspects of Victorian society which provide an interesting contrast to today’s more gender-equal times.  For although the man was the undisputed master of the household, the entire financial burden of bringing up a family fell to him. In Wain’s case, this was inherited, his father having died and left him in charge of a widow and five sisters, with expectations of maintaining a certain standard of middle-class life, and none of the siblings having the decency to get married to alleviate the financial strain.

And all very well from a male perspective if you could take advantage of such a position, with females on hand to meet your every need and never challenge your opinions. Not so easy to maintain if you were of an easy-going disposition with poor business skills and scandalized your siblings by marrying someone below your class, in this case an impoverished governess.

The strain of meeting family obligations, especially with a sister only too willing to remind him of his shortcomings, clearly proves too much for Wain, his earning power diminished by  interest in many other non-remunerative activities. Quite where or when electricity entered the equation is never quite made clear though ongoing nightmares about drowning and imagining he can overhear cats speaking certainly jeopardised his mental health.

By pure accident, at a time when dogs were the prime household pets and cats kept only for the purpose of catching mice, Wain’s cat illustrations became a phenomenon. He would have been wealthy had he retained the copyrights. He fell in love with the thankfully more direct governess and for a time they lived happily together. Ever after was not on the cards once she contracted cancer. The film takes on a different hue once she departs the scene. But eventually his obsession with electricity overcomes him and he ends up in a mental asylum.

The movie covers way too long a period, from his emergence as an artist in 1880 to his commitment in the 1920s. Although Emily features large in the trailer, she is gone too soon and the picture struggles to dramatize his later life. That said, that these shy human creatures emerge from their complicated circumstances to fabricate their own cocoon in the countryside with their beloved cat Peter is a touching tale. The madness that afflicts him may well run in the family, not just in their rampant entitlement, but with one sister carried off to the asylum and the older one a tad neurotic.

Cumberpatch is far better here than in The Power of the Dog where I found his character already too set. Both charming and lacking the guile required to maximize his earning potential, but with a manic nature he can no more soothe than his hair, he dominates the screen so well you are almost taken in by his bizarre theories. As good as he is in love, he is devastating as a man adrift on his own demons. Foy is excellent as the governess doomed to a lifetime of loneliness save for chance encounter with Wain.

Andrea Riseborough (Possessor, 2020) also strikes a chord as the neurotic sister determined to keep family and errant brother together. Toby Jones (Dad’s Army, 2016) plays Wain’s benefactor. The sisters include Sharon Rooney (Dumbo, 2019) and Hayley Squires from television series Adult Material (2020). Putting in a surprise turn as H.G. Wells is musician Nick Cave.

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