CALLERI: Cats of all sizes and personalities shape Louis Wain movie saga

Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy enjoy an idyllic moment in “The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain.” (StudioCanal)

In Victorian London, the populace rarely considered a cat as a suitable pet. The preferred pets in the city, and throughout the British Isles, were various dog breeds, especially English Bulldogs.

Certainly some folks owned cats and kept them in their homes, but in the 1800s they were more often than not feral animals, roaming the streets and lanes of London at will. The Egyptians considered cats mystical creatures. Throughout the centuries, superstitious ladies and gentlemen considered cats compatible companions for witches, especially in literature. Most residents of Britain deemed cats worthwhile only as mousers.

“The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain” is a charming and wonderfully acted new movie that celebrates the real-life Englishman who made cats appealing as pets. I saw it through this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and in my Niagara Gazette festival round-up, I promised I would write more about it when the feature opened in theaters. That happy day has arrived. It’s playing at the North Park Theatre in metro Buffalo-Niagara.

Louis Wain wasn’t a particularly stable fellow in terms of personal determination, complete self-awareness, and employment. He could best be described as a flibbertigibbet. His mutterings were occasionally silly, and he was scatterbrained when it came to remembering where things belonged and how some objects were part of his day-to-day existence.

Wain was socially awkward. He was also embarrassed by his cleft lip. What he believed was his one positive attribute was that he could draw very well. And draw he did. He had been to art school, and he immersed himself in his drawings of rural England, county fairs, and country houses. Cows and gardens were his speciality.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Wain is magnificent. He captures brilliantly the character’s strangeness and also his melancholy. An Academy Award nomination should be a consideration.

The alluring movie, co-written by its director, Will Sharpe, and Simon Stephenson, follows the two essential paths of Wain’s quirky life. Utilizing his talent as a free-lance illustrator, he decides to take a permanent job with the Illustrated London News in 1886. Toby Jones is delightful as the editor. This decision to work full-time occurs despite the fact that Wain enjoys the amiable freedom of mostly doing nothing well.

The second path involves his family. After the death of his father, the twenty-something Wain takes care of his mother and five sisters, which is difficult because he’s a truly bad manager of the little money they have. His youngest sister is diagnosed as insane and is sent to an asylum. The remaining sisters lived with their mother for the duration of their lifetimes, as did Louis for the vast majority of his life. Wain also had his own encounters with the psychiatric community.

A man who can hardly take care of himself and is shy about interpersonal relationships doesn’t seem like a candidate for occupational success and a happy marriage. However, someone or something was watching over Wain, and the magic sparked. Twice. Celebrityhood beckoned.

Eventually, Wain would decide to draw cats instead of chickens and sheep, and his colorful illustrations of felines became a publishing sensation. The British public, especially Londoners, adored his paintings and cartoons. He gave cats human emotions and things to do. He literally anthropomorphized cats. He helped change attitudes about the animals, and they were suddenly all the rage as pets. The reason for choosing to draw pictures of whimsical cats is because of something genuinely serendipitous.

At the same time as Wain became successful, his love life was also peaking. Because he’s busy working, his eldest sister Caroline (a very good Andrea Riseborough) wants to hire a governess for the three youngest Wain girls. Louis is adamantly opposed to this, insisting he can work and oversee the raising and education of his young sisters. Well, he’s against it until he first lays eyes on Emily, the governess.

He eventually marries Emily, who is working class, a societal status lesser than the Wain family’s place in British life. Their marriage isn’t quite acceptable, but neither cares what anyone else thinks.

Emily, played by an enchanting Claire Foy, and Louis set up house in the countryside away from the hullabaloo. One day, Emily adopts a cat and names it Peter. Louis is doubly smitten – an endearing wife and a pleasing new pet. He becomes inspired to illustrate felines – happily playing, enjoyably dancing, and adorably winsome cats. The sweet life, indeed.

Is Peter’s appearance mere coincidence or an act of fate? The thematically robust movie is filled with interesting questions like this.

Sweet can become sour, which it will in this true story, and Wain, never completely a whole person mentally, will have trouble staying on the rails. Director Sharpe superbly blends a volatile mix of charm and tragedy.

Cumberbatch and Foy lead a wonderful cast that also includes singer Nick Cave as novelist H. G. Wells, popular director Taika Waitita as real-life Hearst newspaper reporter Max Kase, and narrator Olivia Colman.

The absolute highest praise goes to Erik Wilson for his breathtakingly beautiful cinematography. Please give him his well-deserved Academy Award now.

“The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain” is one of the best movies I’ve seen during the past two very strange movie-watching years. The film is lovely and endearing and unafraid to tell a story with characters whose traits are palpably unique. Don’t miss it.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at

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