I’m surprised The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) hasn’t gotten more press — I’ve only found a few interviews with the principles behind this quirky little film, even though it’s funded by Amazon and showing in both theaters and on Amazon Prime. I guess it’s what 20 years ago would have been an art-house film or indie film, one of those under-the-radar flicks that may feature some big names and have high production values, but it’s not destined to make much money or get a ton of viewers. Which is a shame because this is an adorable movie, and I don’t think I’ve enjoyed anything this pure and charming all year or in who knows how long. With the caveat that you really have to be a cat person to appreciate it, and I am wholly and unreservedly!
I may love cats, but I’ve never much appreciated Benedict Cumberbatch on screen. He looks weird and his acting is stilted and affected. Well folks, that all works to his advantage here because the main character, which he plays, is definitely weird, stilted, and affected. Louis Wain (August 5, 1860 – July 4, 1939) was an English artist best-known, if at all, for drawings of animated and often anthropomorphized cats. He was the eldest of 6 children in a somewhat unusual middle-class family where his father was a textile merchant and his French mother designed church embroideries. When Louis was 20, his father died, and as the only remaining male in the family, Louis had to support his mother and sisters through his illustration work for London newspapers.
In 1883, Louis married Emily Richardson, who had been governess for his youngest sisters. The couple only had five years together because she died of breast cancer. But during that time, they found a kitten that they named Peter. Louis drew pictures of Peter to amuse his ill wife, and she encouraged him to publish this art. In a diary entry, Louis wrote: “Peter was her [Emily’s] constant companion. His was the genius which gilded many a sorrowful hour and lightened many a burden.”
After Emily’s death, Louis began to get his cat art published, and it became wildly popular. He was hugely prolific, drawing hundreds of new cat designs every year starting around the turn of the last century. He illustrated over 200 books and a successful Christmas annual. It’s been suggested that Louis Wain’s cat art was the first thing to make cats popular as pets, but it’s also possible that he was just creating the right art at the right time. In the New York Post, historian Stephanie Howard-Smith said:
“The question of whether Wain helped to popularize the cat as a pet is also a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem. The cat’s star was on the rise in Victorian Britain — the first cat show was held in London in 1871 … In 1872, the dog food manufacturer James Spratt filed a patent to manufacture cat biscuits. [Cats began to] appear in popular pet memoirs … and in family photographs.”
Unfortunately, all this popularity and sales of his art didn’t make Louis wealthy because he wasn’t a great businessperson. He had trouble supporting himself and paying his family’s debts despite how hard he worked. He was assisted by his friend and publisher Sir William Ingram, who allowed Louis, his mother, and his sisters to live in one of his seaside properties during the next two decades. With a modicum of stability, he kept drawing. Sir Frank Burnand, the editor of the satirical magazine Punch called Wain ‘The Hogarth of Cat Life,’ and Louis described one way he worked as:
“I take a sketch-book to a restaurant or other public place, and draw the people in their different positions as cats, getting as near to their human characteristics as possible. This gives me double nature, and these studies I think my best humorous work.”
In the early 20th century, Louis became paranoid, reclusive, and sometimes violent with his family, so his surviving sisters had him committed to a mental hospital in 1924. At the time, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s unclear what really was troubling Louis, since diagnosis and understanding of mental illness has changed a great deal in the past century. Previously, Wain’s more psychedelic cat artwork was used as “proof” of his “decline” into schizophrenia, but that’s been questioned because he drew both realistic and abstract cat art while he was institutionalized and many more of his artworks are undated.
After a year in the pauper’s hospital, a former acquaintance discovered Louis there and raised funds to get him moved to a better institution. Novelist H. G. Wells was part of this effort and said of Louis Wain:
“He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”
Thanks to this late attention, the artist was able to live out his final years in more comfort in a private institution. Louis Wain died in 1939, having continued drawing cats all the time.
Much of this life story makes it into the film quite neatly. Sometimes biopics feel like they’re checking off the boxes of all the things that happened in a person’s life, and I suppose that’s more true when a person is highly accomplished or had a series of extreme events happen to them. Not a lot really happens to Louis Wain — he has to support his family, he gets married, his wife dies, he surrounds himself with cats, he draws cats, he’s bad with money, he has mental health issues. That’s not a very dramatic plot, and it doesn’t have to be for this subject matter. The movie is soft and introspective, an emotional portrait in many ways, musing on different types of love and connection and self-expression. Much like a cat itself, this movie curls up around you and kneads you with prickly paws, which you’ll either find endearing or irritating.
In the background helping set the scene for this quirky tale are costumes designed by the always excellent Michael O’Connor. The one thing noteworthy is how much print and pattern is used in all the clothing, both men’s and women’s. It’s historically accurate and emphasizes the “electrical” buzz that’s a visual theme in the movie. The set designs are also filled with patterns, like wallpapers, leaves, and other textures.
And mad props to O’Connor for correctly showing the passage of time through the clothing! The film starts in the 1880s with women in bustle gowns and then moves to the 1890s when the women wear leg-o-mutton sleeves. Next is the 1910s with slim silhouettes, and the movie closes out with a few 1920s cloches in view. Thank you, because it’s one of my pet peeves to see time march on in a story but not in the fashions.
Do you love cats? Will you watch The Electrical Life of Louis Wain?