A History Lesson & Heartfelt Tale of the Man Who Painted Cats
Cats: furry, feisty, funny and fantastic companions that many of us have in our households. Love them, hate them, hate to love them – a lot of the interests in the modern era all come back to Felines doing the most bizarre or adorable things. But have we always had this love for cats? Sure, the Egyptians worshipped them like gods, and in other cultures, Cats were guards. But in Britain, during the Victorian era, Mid 1800’s, having a cat as a pet was a bit taboo, with many on the streets considered wretched and filthy. And that’s when Louis Wain contributed to changing the way we see cats!
Louis Wain, born in Clerkenwell, London, was a part-time illustrator, who eventually came to fame for his unique cat portraits, which led him to an obsession with everything cats. It’s thanks to him and his imagination that cats are loved a lot more in the UK than they originally were. As a cat lover myself, and a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, this film intrigued me, not knowing a lot about Louis Wain nor his thing with the world of cats. On top of that, I didn’t know that, out of context, an artist slowly going into a mental health rabbit hole being represented on the big screen is always something to be aware of. But once I watched, dug a little deeper, and educated myself, I had found myself in shock that I didn’t know about Wain sooner!
A Very Peculiar Yet Powerful Story
Based on the true life story, though slightly exaggerated in the way it’s told on-screen, we follow British artist Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose pieces of work of various cats, transformed the public’s views on the felines forever. Set in the early 1900s, The film follows Wain from his starting point, his ups-and-downs looking after his sisters, his romantic engagement with Governess Emily Richardson and her saddening passing, Wain’s Mental Health spiralling out of control and of course, his journey painting cats.
This film looks to open up peoples minds into the lives of troubled souls who existed during unsympathetic, and rather medically ignorant times and how they were treated (think artists such as Van Gogh). There is a wonderful sadness to this film; It’s beautiful, tragic, uplifting and informative – a little bit of like The Imitation Game (which Cumberbatch also starred in). It mixes the right amount of humour and emotions together to create a history lesson that’s tonally relevant.
Visually, it’s quiet reminiscent to something Wes Anderson would make, with the smaller ratio camera creating a more claustrophobic, vintage style, getting you into the mood and time frame of this movie. The production design, performances, cinematography and music are fantastical, and you really appreciate all these elements throughout . The cinematography was so beautiful and the film was visually stunning, especially that the film had so many shots that look like an actual painting – absolute genius way of going about it (it really is beautiful to watch).
The Victorian Era Setting
The Victorian style furniture, houses and landscapes of 1880s London are really fleshed out throughout that your taken away by it’s significances. The outdoor scenes are intensely colourful, the late Victorian ambience is meticulously rendered as only the English can do, and Arthur Sharpe’s score is lovely. We see British traditions like drinking tea at midday (how very British), visiting the opera house to watch theatre (nothing says treating the kids than showing them a live performance of The Tempest), and gossiping between nosey neighbours (that’s right, you still had people who were in there 30’s slagging each other off, some things never change, eh?). The theme of social status and classes, treatment of those who weren’t mentally well, gossiping neighbours and gender roles are all presented through the Victorian lens, which makes you realize just how much more different things are today.
Electricity, Cats, & The Human Mind
We see videos and photos and even digital art of cats and kittens online so frequently that it’s common play, so it was stunning to realize that someone like Louis Wain was basically the starting point for this sort of craze, creating much of the same impressions and scenarios that you would see today. This movie covered a time when cats were, in reality, not seen as conventional house pets or companions. Louis’ artworks in the film changed that viewership, much as they once did in real life. His fascination with electricity also led him to make parallels between a cat’s choice of N-S-E-W walking direction and the way it twitches its whiskers – the cat-show scenario handled this effectively, though I’m not sure if that observation was true or not.
The choice to include realistic descriptions of Wain’s nightmares, dreams, and hallucinations adds to the reality of his mental state spiralling, worsening and collapsing. It evokes a wide range of emotions, including awe, empathy, awe at his talent, and sadness at his tragic life. It’s the sorrow and gloom, however, that fuels the creativity of Mr Wain. It’s the driving force that keeps him going, and even after everything that he’s lost he is resilient to continue.
Benedict Cumberbatch and The Louis Wain Influence
I already knew Benedict Cumberbatch to be one of the better working actors currently, and he certainly hits a home run as the colourful and eccentric Wain. The personality of Louis Wain was extraordinary and Benedict succeeded in bringing his version of the artist to life on the screen. With the great deal of help from the makeup artists, prosthetics, beautiful music score, visual effects and colourful representation of Wain’s world (pun intended?), I was able to feel his pain and struggles, and see the world through the prism of his vision.
I’ve always liked Cumberbatch, but until seeing this film I didn’t fully realize how *physical* an actor he can be. He invests his whole body in the role and not just his dialogue. Look at the way his Wain simply walks down the street – short rapid strides, uncertain, shy, nervous. Compare that with his Sherlock Holmes, with his confident, almost arrogant stride. Things like that make up real mastery. Wain himself was a truly peculiar figure: he specialised in drawing and painting cats, and as time went on the late-Victorian-era public eventually ate up the odd charm of his work. He would have been far more successful if he’d had an ounce of business sense, but as it was he always lived on the edge of poverty.
My Overall Thoughts on The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
I will admit, before watching it I knew nothing of Louis Wain – surely I have seen art by Louis Wain before, or Wain-inspired art, but never before did I know his story, which is tragic, fascinating and beautiful. And now that I’ve gotten around to watching this film, it’s allowed me to educate myself on this visionary, finding him to be a fascinating person. And The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is all sorts of silly, serious and bizarre, and it’s a great way to depict the life of an artist through their eyes.
Fancy more film reviews? You’re in luck! For another history lesson of infamous people, why not have a read of my review for House of Gucci. Feeling in the mood for something more fiction? I’ve got you covered – definitely have a read of my article for the latest instalment in The Matrix franchise, The Matrix Resurrections.