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  Electrical Life of Louis Wain, The Cat People
Year: 2021
Director: Will Sharpe
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Phoebe Nicholls, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Taika Waititi, Crystal Clarke, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Nick Cave
Genre: BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The story goes that before Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) made his mark on the entertainment world, cats were not so well thought of as pets. He was a late Victorian era artist, as well as an inventor and amateur scientist, who lived in London supporting his five sisters and his mother (Phoebe Nicholls), though it was eldest sibling Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) who kept the family together as Louis struggled to hold down a job. It was she who hired a governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), to look after the youngest girls, and suddenly Emily was the focus of Louis's romantic interests...

Not the done thing to fall in love with your governess back in Victorian times, but Mr Wain went ahead anyway in a film that championed him as an iconoclast, not merely because of his eccentricities that almost accidentally fought against conventions, but because he invented I Can Haz Cheezburger. Well, the film did not quite go that far, but it was the strong implication in director Will Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson's screenplay, and wishing to latch on to something relevant in the age of the meme, they settled on Wain's cat paintings and drawings as the start of something big.

To do so they had to posit him as a feline revolutionary, celebrating cats for being adorable and the objects of respect and humour, often mixed together in the same image. We are told that before Wain made the animals acceptable, nobody considered cats as loveable companions, but that's simply not true: famously, another Victorian eccentric, nonsense poet Edward Lear, was very attached to his cat Foss and often drew him in his cartoons, something of a predecessor to Wain (whose work lasted into the Edwardian era). There are other examples, and this meant the premise was built on shakier ground than they let on.

For a start, the Ancient Egyptians were big fans of cats as pets, so there is a vast historical precedent for the practice, and no matter how much sympathy you had for Wain's eventual mental disintegration, it was on surer territory when it was detailing his relationships which pretty much played out the way they did in real life. Therefore you had the uncertain feeling of watching a film that asked us to find the cute mentally ill guy appealing in all his quaintness, occasionally allowing the personal tragedy of such a situation to shine through. With Emily, Louis had his soulmate, so of course the world was so cruel to him that they only had a short time together (with a cat) before he was sent spiralling off the deep end and into insanity.

Sharpe approximated Wain's view of his environment by making the often-troubled thoughts running through his head visible, be that his childhood nightmares that were so vivid he still had not gotten over them as an adult, or his heightened reality when it came to his opinions on the nature of electricity. He believed the force to be a living one, connecting people in ways they barely understood, when in fact it was the humour and joy his cat paintings gave to his adoring public that were actually connecting people, through their shared affection for cats. It's a nice idea, somewhat sentimental, but it was either go down that route or present its subject in the style of a harrowing horror yarn, which may have been more accurate as to how it was for him to experience, locked away as he was till the end of his life when it all grew too much for him to bear. They tried to snatch a kind of victory from the jaws of his defeat, seemingly because they believed that as a cat lover he deserved happiness, but it didn't quite convince if you were indifferent to the creatures at best. If you did like cats, you may shed a tear, and that was, to an extent, earned. Music by Arthur Sharpe.

[Studio Canal release this on Blu-ray on 21st March 2022. There are two featurettes on the making and Wain himself on the disc.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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