Should you be anticipating “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” in the hopes of a lighthearted Victorian romp featuring lots of cute appearances by cats, approach with caution. The cats are certainly there, particularly a dignified black-and-white kitten named Peter who deserves a kitty Oscar of some sort (he gets some real drama into a scene where he climbs some stairs), but the mood of this movie definitely falls on the side of wistful, and often heartbreakingly sad. It’s helped immensely by Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, two actors who know how to craft nuance in a moment of silence, and suggest devastation in a gaze.
Cumberbatch, aging quite believably from his 20s in the 1880s to a half-century later in the course of the film, plays the title character: a British artist who found his specialty in drawing pictures of cats, which became wildly popular. (He’s credited, according to this film’s sly narration by Olivia Colman, with helping change the perception of cats in Victorian England, from mere mousers kept for practical purposes to friendly companions.) Wain is both eccentric Renaissance man — this artist is fascinated by electricity and writes opera — and worried head of a crowded household, responsible for his mother and five younger sisters after his father’s death. Emily (Foy) is the governess with whom he falls in love. Things are as idyllic as a picture postcard for a little while, until illness — both physical and mental — changes the course of their lives.
Director Will Sharpe drenches the film in shadowy Victorian atmosphere (the wallpaper is practically a supporting actor) but makes its tone a bit uneven. You’d think a filmmaker interested in modernizing this sort of period piece, via some nontraditional casting and contemporary language (Emily casually drops an F-bomb at one point), might make a less sentimental film that has something clearer to say about mental illness. Ultimately, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is made enjoyable by its human and feline actors, despite the sadness of the material, and it left me wanting to know more about its subject, which I suppose is the point.
Screening it at home, I watched most of it with a cat on my lap, which added immensely to the pleasure; too bad the multiplexes can’t figure out a way to offer this service. Mr. Wain would surely approve.