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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021)

Cats that don’t look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves. London, 1881. 18 months after his father’s death Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) the only male and eldest of the Wain family of five sisters, becomes the primary breadwinner. He supports and his ailing mother (Phoebe Nicholls) by working part-time as an illustrator for The Illustrated London News for editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones). Ingram offers him a full-time job, but Wain declines in order to try his hand at composing music and playwriting; which he hopes will support the family but neither venture is successful. Louis hires Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) to be the new governess for his sisters. The two become instantly attracted to each other, much to the dismay of the eldest sister, the shrill Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) whom he accuses of having been jealous of him since they were children. Louis decides to take the full time position in order to keep Emily as the governess. One night, Louis takes the family, and Emily to the theatre to see The Tempest as an educational trip. She comforts Louis in the men’s restroom after he has a recurring nightmare about drowning during the performance, but inadvertently causes a scandal when nosy neighbor Mrs. DuFrane (Dorothy Atkinson) tells people about the incident. Embarrassed, Caroline fires her that night. Before she can leave, Louis professes his love for her and they begin a courtship. In 1884, the couple marry, which causes another scandal for the Wain family due to her being years older than him; and her social status as a governess which is considered lower class. They move into a house in the country-like idyll of Hampstead and decorate their home all in blue. Louis takes additional work as a freelance artist to continue supporting his family. Emily is diagnosed with terminal cancer of the left breast: Just when I was beginning to enjoy it, she says in an aside to the doctor. While walking in the countryside, Emily hears the unmistakable sounds of a cat and they take in the stray kitten – at a time when keeping a cat as a pet was highly unusual – whom they name Peter, to relieve the grief of Emily’s cancer. Louis begins painting realistic pictures of Peter, but the paintings become more unusual as Emily’s condition worsens. He makes the cats more anthropomorphic. A financial crisis in England causes the paper to cut staff. Sir William tells Louis that he will have cut his workload, and says he should use the extra time to spend with Emily. She encourages him to show his cat paintings to Sir William who uses the drawings in two pages of the Christmas edition. Although the edition becomes a success, Emily dies months later. Louis begins drawing more cat pictures to cope with losing the love of his life, creating whole cat societies, but it also begins to show Wain’s detachment from reality as he hasn’t copyrighted the images which are now in widespread usage, his home is filled with cats and clutter and his mother and sisters are in hopeless debt … They’re silly and lonely, frightened and brave – like us. Since this biographical comedy drama is all about a lover of kitty cats it had us at Miaow. That said, the first cat (Peter, the star) doesn’t appear until the forty-minute mark so this requires patience above the humorous voiceover (by Olivia Colman) and the prism of the colour blue through which both Louis and Emily see the world – they are united by their choice of homewares and perspective: When it comes to drawing, there’s only ever one rule you need to teach – it’s to look. Their relationship – she an ageing spinster, he a frankly odd cove – provides the first hour of narrative with a moving panorama of sisters, sponsor, theatre, Victoriana, preoccupations (rocks for her, boxing and opera and art and everything else for him) and the discovery of the kitten triggers the alternative to death, looming once her diagnosis is communicated. The final third of the story is After Emily. The more intensely he suffered the more beautiful the work. And there’s a frenzy of artistry, a move to the seaside en famille and poor schizoid sister Marie (Hayley Squires) is carted off to the asylum when the fresh air doesn’t provide the anticipated cure, and Caroline is convinced that Louis’ view of the world means he must be raving mad too. It’s amusing that Dr Elphick is played by Julian Barratt, who finds Wain utterly sane. Finally after a peculiar and embarrassing publicity tour of the United States, Louis is incarcerated. Years later after the war and when everyone is so much older, a chance meeting with an early enthusiast correctly articulates what he has called electricity as Love. How you’ve managed to conjure images of such delight at such a dark time I don’t know. Nick Cave turns up as H.G. Wells, a supporter. It’s all beautifully made and with willful eccentricity even if we didn’t enjoy the slo-mo sequences (that takes us out of the deliberate overstuffed Christmas card-ness production design by Suzie Davies) and there is a cast of familiar faces, many of whom are given little to do – there perhaps for their woke factor (skin colour, size, look) as opposed to anything interpretive. Cumberbatch is quite wonderful. Seeing him in a swimming pool doing his funny paddle recalls those Otters That Look Like Benedict Cumberbatch memes. Most of all, this is about kindness and understanding. Not just for cats – endangered, misunderstood, outsiders – or those who love them, but for creatures of all kinds who do not fit the mould. Sparky and imperfect but very endearing. Written by Simon Stephenson and director Will Sharpe. He completely altered the public attitude toward cats

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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