“The Electric Life of Louis Wain” has the same problem as its real subject, since it goes in too many directions at once. Benedict Cumberbatch, who also produced the film, plays Wain, a after 19th and early 20th century illustrator whose whimsical images of cats were so popular that they helped inspire the widespread adoption of cats as pets. Contemporary viewers will appreciate the confusing reaction when Wain tells someone that he has a cat named Peter. “You mean like a mouse?”
Peter is a companion and a source of comfort, as today’s pet owners understand. When Peter dies, Wain is inconsolable and has been crying every day for years. His love for cats is evident from his illustrations. H. G. Wells (a short performance by musician Nick Cave) said about these drawings: “Cats that do not look like those of Louis Wain are ashamed of themselves.”
Olivia Colman provides a clear narrative that first gives us the context of the era and, like so many others, joyfully neglects the repressive and colonialist elements of the era: “In addition to its strange social prejudices, Victorian England was also a country of innovation and scientific discovery. Many of the best minds in the world dug deep into the nature of electricity.”But while scientists and inventors tried to use electricity to illuminate the darkness and operate machines, Louis Wain believed that electrical forces are what pulls us forward in time and helps us preserve our memories. He called electricity ” the key to all the alarming secrets of life.”This idea helped to inspire his cat photos, which over the decades have become more stylized and kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic.
Today we would call neuroatypical wain. For example, he drew his complex work with both hands at once, with each hand starting on one side of the page and finding a perfect alignment in the middle. His interactions with other people had a blunt awkwardness that today could be diagnosed as autism spectrum.
He also spent his last decades in psychiatric hospitals. Colman’s narrative tells us that his mind was a “dark, howling hurricane of paralyzing fears and recurring nightmares.”Wain says that his constant and frantic activity was an effort to manage his mental chaos. Some contemporary experts believe that he suffered from schizophrenia and that the increasing abstraction and fantasy of his paintings testifies to a separation from reality. The film shows him with a frightening hallucination, which could be caused by a psychosis.
He also had a lot of pressure from the outside. He was the sole provider of his “whimsical and bohemian” widowed mother and five “hungry and early” sisters, one of whom would become seriously mentally ill, and none of them would contribute to the maintenance of the family. Even after his work was very successful, his poor judgment and lack of understanding of money kept the family in trouble and in debt.
The only moments of peace and true happiness for Wain were a very gentle romance with the housekeeper of his sisters, Emily (a warm and spiritual achievement of Claire Foy). Peter was a stray cat that they adopted together. It was a great source of comfort because Emily developed breast cancer and became very ill. It was she who told Wain that cats were “ridiculous, silly, cuddly, frightened and brave, just like us,” and who inspired the beginning of her whimsical drawings of cats, enjoying human activities and often gently making fun of the fashions and fashions of the time.
The fresh cheerfulness of Colman’s narrative and the pretty postcard decorations can give us an idea of Wain’s mind, at least of the part that imagined the whimsical world of his cats. But this gives an awkward and sometimes insensitive account of the most tragic elements of the story. One scene is interrupted by a song on the soundtrack, which is mainly “meow” sounds. The result is an artificial clay that makes whimsical cats more real to us than Wain himself.