Review of “The Electric Life of Louis Wain”: The Cat’s Meow

“Why cats? This innocent question comes in the middle of “The Electric Life of Louis Wain,” hovering over it like a mischievous smile. For some of us, of course, the only answer to this question may be, “Why not? The answer was much more complicated for the real Wain, a British artist who in the 1880s became famous for his distinctive and playful cat drawings; its fame has helped deepen the national appreciation of Felis catus.

Wain’s work can be easily found online, and even if you recognize him, the man remains more elusive. The modesty, ubiquity and naivety of his art played a role. The designs were mass-produced, to begin with, first appearing in newspapers which were likely soon to be used to wrap fish and chips (or torn to pieces for the toilet). They were also widely distributed on postcards, greeting cards, children’s books and other ephemera. But because he didn’t have the copyright to most of his work, everyone owned it. The images were merchandise of the humblest and most populist genre, not rarefied fetishes of the art market.

“The Electrical Life,” a poignant biographical portrait starring an irresistible Benedict Cumberbatch, helps bring the man into focus, even if everything is a bit hazy. It’s bound by a chatty and slightly funny script from Simon Stephenson and director Will Sharpe, who took on the material with kindness and a springy, slightly dashing approach to the medium. In its biopic sweep, the film is conventional, with a not quite cradle to not quite serious trajectory that allows Cumberbatch to inhabit the character through time, as Louis (pronounced Louie) matures, falls in love. , find fame and endure a series of crushing blows while creating his magical and mystical cats.

Maybe you can’t wait to find out more; maybe you are already gagging and not on a hairball. Despite their odd but understandable prominence on YouTube, cats are unfortunately not for everyone, and probably “The Electrical Life” either. It doesn’t help that the first scenes jump back in time – they open with an elderly Louis, then move to his past, a tedious framing device – and have the restless, restless energy of a fearful host. that his party is not a mess. There’s a monochromatic funeral, a wash of drab colors and characters moving in slow motion, and then, bam, Louis races through his noisy London home alongside his mother and five single sisters.

The rapid bursts of opening effectively display the coordinates of Louis’ life: the dead father, the women’s house and the difficulties to come. All of this quasi-Dickensian turmoil also has a productive stealth and destabilizing function, because the slight frenzy (falsely) suggests a lack of directional control. Soon, Louis and the film air in the biopic, prompted by the soothing voice of his invisible narrator, Olivia Colman. And as the energy remains high and the pace sustained throughout, it becomes more and more clear that the sweet chaos swirls in the first few scenes because it swirls in Louis’ poor head.

For the most part, Sharpe enters this head through action rather than a simple explanation, by informing you of the world of Louis and his great loves, both human and feline. There is a lot of chatter, some delivered at almost breathless speed (or rapper dueling). The fast paced rhythms of the dialogue gratifyingly enunciated in ambiance and tone, and convey the daily commotion both in Louis’ house and in his buzzing, roaring mind. A polymath, he made money drawing freelance illustrations for newspapers, but he also wrote an opera, took boxing lessons, and studied electricity, a passionate habit that took on increasing metaphorical resonance.

Louis and the story settle into a sweet groove when he meets Emily (the perfect cast Claire Foy), who is hired as a housekeeper for her sisters. Their class differences make their romance a scandal for nosy noses, and for Louis’ sister Caroline (equally well-chosen Andrea Riseborough), a bittersweet presence who has taken on the role of stern principal of the family. Caroline fires Emily; Louis married her. Amortized by the steady but modest income now provided by an indulgent newspaper editor and unexpected cat lover (Toby Jones), Louis and Emily move to the countryside, where they settle in a cabin. It’s as beautiful and sad as life, and then one day they understand a low meow.

Emily profoundly changes Louis’ life, giving it a but and a meaning; the wandering meow, which they call Peter, gives Louis a way to express that meaning and purpose. When Emily falls ill, Louis begins drawing Peter the Great (as he will soon be called) to distract her and lighten the quickly darkening mood. Drawn with quick and free gestures – the film shows Louis drawing using both hands at the same time – these initial images are very true to reality and done in a classic way with shapes, dimensions, textures, mustaches and familiar eyes. The images are sensitive, charming, and they convey feelings that he cannot always put into words. Louis’s cats look like cats, until they don’t.

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