“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is supposed to appeal to many cat lovers like me out there, but it is not exactly a cheerful experience in my humble opinion. As a biographic period drama about an eccentric dude who became quite famous via his funny cat illustrations, the movie is often flat and pedestrian instead of being witty or whimsical, and it also comes to lose considerable energy and momentum during its second half, which is unfortunately hampered by the absence of what makes its first half engaging enough to hold our attention.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who has been specializing in playing antisocial characters since his breakthrough turn in British TV drama series “Sherlock”, plays Louis Wain, and the opening part of the film shows us how this well-known British illustrator once struggled day by day as a freelancer living in London during the 1870s. While he is a very good illustrator who can draw many drawings within a short time, Wain is not so good at how to sell his talent, and that certainly frustrates his mother and five sisters, who have to depend on him a lot since his father’s recent death.
Anyway, things get a little better for him (and his family) when a governess named Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) begins to stay in his house. Although he does not welcome this change much, he eventually accepts that, and, mainly for affording her, he comes to accept the full employment suggested by Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), a rich and benevolent newspaper publisher who comes to appreciate Wain’s talent a lot despite Wain’s socially awkward attitude.
What follows next is an amusingly awkward courtship between Wain and Emily. Like any Victorian couple, they do try to be discreet as much as possible, but it does not take much time for his sisters to see what is going on between their older brother and Emily, and the same thing can be said about many others in their neighborhood – especially after when they happen to be spotted at a certain place where they should not be together at any chance.
In the end, Wain’s oldest sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) decides to let Emily go, but that only comes to motivate him more. To Caroline’s displeasure, he promptly proposes to Emily, and they move to a cozy little house together shortly after their marriage. As finally finding someone who will love him while also accepting his eccentric personality, Wain feels much happier than before, and Emily gradually becomes the firm ground for his daily life and work. At one point, they happen to adopt a little stray cat on one rainy day, and, thanks to her encouragement, he comes to draw many cat illustrations which lead to considerable public fame for him.
Sadly, their happiness does not last long due to Emily’s terminal illness, and Wain is certainly devastated by her eventual death. As Emily asked not long before her death, he keeps drawing cat illustrations as usual, but he is not wise enough to hold the copyrights of those illustrations, and that makes Caroline and his other sisters all the more frustrated. Thanks to his generous employer, he and his sisters manage to get a place to stay together at least, but things only get worse year by year, and Wain also begins to show more erratic behaviors just like his youngest sister, who is eventually taken to an institute for mental illness.
While the first half of the film is enlivened by the nice chemistry between Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, its second part simply plods from one miserable moment to another in Wain’s later years, and that is where the movie becomes less engaging than before. Director Will Sharpe, who wrote the screenplay with Simon Stephenson, and cinematographer Erik Wilson attempt to convey to us Wain’s increasingly unstable state of mind via a number of visual techniques, but the overall result is rather distracting, and we only come to observe Wain’s worsening mental problem from the distance without much care or attention.
In case of Wain’s cat illustrations, well, I assure you that you will get plenty of them as expected, but we do not get much of artistic joy or excitement as the movie merely wallows in Wain’s growing miseries. Yes, my eyes were immediately drawn to several cute cats in the film including that adorable kitty adopted by Wain and Emily, and I enjoyed Wain’s cat illustrations appearing in the film, but these more cheerful elements do not mix that well with the darker parts of the film. In other words, the movie does have agony, but it does not have enough ecstasy to complement that.
At least, Cumberbatch and several main cast members try as much as they can. He and Foy have some fun as their characters tentatively approach to each other, and that is the main reason why Foy’s eventual absence feels like a big hole. Although she is stuck with a thankless role, Andrea Riseborough makes her long-suffering sister character more understandable than expected, and Toby Jones, who has been one of the most dependable British character actors during last two decades, simply steals the show whenever he appears on the screen.
In conclusion, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is not entirely boring a number of whimsical touches besides its eccentric hero and his lovely artworks, but it is also not engaging enough mainly due to its weak storytelling. If you want to see a really good and cheerful cat movie, there is a little special Turkish documentary film “Kedi” (2016), and, believe me, you will not be disappointed at all.