Festivals, Reviews

TIFF 2021: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’—a Playful Take on the Tortured Cat Painter Genius

Cats have been worshipped for centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, paintings of anthropomorphized large-eyed cats were in circulation. Cats, then still a bit of a mystery, became the mainstream, all thanks to a man named Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch). 

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain follows Wain’s journey from being the sole breadwinner of his family to his marriage and the eventual end of his life. Wain supports his mother and sisters through animal sketches for The Illustrated London News, impressing his boss (Toby Jones) with his fast hands. Even with such artistry, Wain is plagued with dark thoughts until his family hires a kind governess, Emily (Claire Foy), that matches his eccentrics. Yet the relationship was deemed intolerable in Victorian society because of the age and class difference. As they start their life together, she is diagnosed with cancer. The couple adopts a tuxedo kitten, which becomes a constant companion for the couple, and Louis sketches cats to lift the spirits of his ailing wife.

Director-writer Will Sharpe, known for his work for the British series Flowers, gives us an eccentric look at Wain’s life that matches the artist’s personality. The electricity of his journey as an artist is daunting to capture onscreen but Erik Alexander Wilson fittingly visualizes the film with the 4:3 ratio. Perhaps one of the most visually striking films of the year, Wilson plays with the physicality of the celluloid film of the era together with Wain’s artistry. 

Sharpe’s script is witty with a humorous narration from his frequent collaborator Olivia Colman. The chemistry of Cumberbatch and Foy, who have worked together before, is undeniable from the start; this film was a big change from their first film together, the bleaker Wreckers. Foy, though only appearing in the first half of the film, leaves such an impact as her character was intended to do. The film’s first half is joyous and playful until the midpoint where Wain deals with the grief of losing his wife.

Along with the two main actors, the film also boasts a roster of the best of the best working in the British film industry today. Andrea Riseborough plays Louis’ older sister, a more competent breadwinner confined to the restrictive gender norms of the era. Sophie DiMartino (Loki), Aimee Lou Wood (Sex Education), and Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) play Louis’ younger sisters. The film impressively has cameos from Taika Waititi and singer Nick Cave. And of course, the cats themselves. Aside from an amazing cast, Louis Wain exhibits amazing prosthetic work as the story progresses; Cumberbatch looked like Christopher Plummer in his aged scenes.

A strong feature with an amazing subject, Louis Wain tells the painter’s story with gentleness and love. It takes you on a journey in one of the most debated minds in the art world, filled with wit and cats. Cumberbatch proves he is an actor that earned his place in the industry. This film will surely change your mind about cats if you still aren’t convinced by them.

‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ will be released on Amazon Prime Video on November 5.

1 thought on “TIFF 2021: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’—a Playful Take on the Tortured Cat Painter Genius”

  1. Cumberbatch is really something: from Dr. Strange to this. What a fabulous actor. He even makes a crummy comic book movie engaging.

    And thanks for this review. I was not aware of the film.


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