Monday, November 8, 2021

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain: Victorian Surrealist

Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which had a brief life in art houses and is now available on Amazon Prime, evokes the great Victorian and Edwardian children’s stories, like the Alice books and the Mary Poppins books, though it’s mostly for adults (children who aren’t knocked off kilter by sad tales will love it, too), and in other ways it recalls the nutcake Ealing comedies of the fifties. It tells the true story of a Victorian eccentric, the illustrator Louis Wain (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), whose whimsical, proto-surrealist sketches of cats – initially inspired by a stray he and his wife Emily (Claire Foy) discover in their garden in the rain, adopt and fall in love with – alter the perceptions of English people when they began to appear in The Illustrated London News in the 1880s. (Strange as it seems, felines have not always been cherished as household pets.)

Wain, whom we first encounter in 1881, is a man of disparate interests. He supports his mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and five younger sisters on the paltry money he makes from his illustrations for The Illustrated London News, but he also swims and boxes and he has two patents out for electrical inventions. He’s even written an opera, though the composer he shows it to doesn’t take it very seriously. Wain’s editor, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), is sufficiently taken with his drawings to offer him a full-time job, which would seem to be a godsend since Louis’s idiosyncratic way of thinking, charming as it is, gets in the way of his reporting. (He’s attacked by a bull at a country fair he’s covering for Ingram because he got the idea somehow that throwing peanuts at the creature would calm him down.)  But at first he turns down Sir William’s proposal; his mind moves in many different directions and he doesn’t want to limit his intellectual opportunities. Eventually the family’s desperate financial straits change his mind. The Wain house isn’t a happy one. Through the power of her stentorian voice, the eldest of Louis’ sisters, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), rules the roost – their bohemian mother (Phoebe Nicholls) is generally thought of as dotty and mostly keeps her opinions to herself. Caroline is better with the younger children than she is with Louis, who, in her view, continually makes the wrong decisions. Caroline and the two sisters closer to her age are neurotically suffocated with Victorian propriety and in thrall to the social dictates of their middle-class London neighborhood; their preoccupation with how they’re being judged might seem preposterous if one hadn’t read Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. They hire Emily as a governess for the children, but she’s unconventional enough to increase Caroline’s social anxieties. When Louis takes the family, with Emily in tow, to see a production of The Tempest and the shipwreck in the opening scene brings back his childhood nightmares of drowning at sea, her humane concern for him prompts her to follow him into the gents’. The uncharitable teasing of their gossipy neighbor (Dorothy Atkinson) convinces Caroline that Emily has made them a laughingstock and she fires her.

But by then Emily and Louis have fallen in love. They marry and move into an odd-angled folly of a cottage that enhances their happiness. But Caroline disapproves of his union with a woman who used to be a salaried servant, and even after Emily dies of cancer only three years into their marriage, she can’t bring herself to forgive him for this social gaffe. It doesn’t matter to Louis, who’s bedazzled by Emily. When she gets sick she insists that he mustn’t wallow in her illness, so he turns his energies to filling a room with cat pictures for her. It’s she who encourages him to show them to Sir William, who is enchanted – and moved by his ability to capture “images of such delight at such a dark time.” He tasks Louis with filling two pages of the holiday edition with his uncanny, anthropomorphic cats, and all of London adores them. They make him famous, and according to the witty, tenderly ironic voice-over narration (delivered by the peerless Olivia Colman), they become the only way he can deal with his grief. When his beloved feline, Peter, dies too, a few years later, his departure opens up the wound, since Peter is almost an avatar for his lost wife.

Cumberbatch is marvelous in The Courier (out last summer) as the fumbling salesman who becomes a spy and a hero in the Cold War era, but his Louis Wain is, I think, the most extraordinary acting he’s done. Gentle but driven by deep feeling, leavened by comic quirkiness and touched with lunacy, his acting recalls Alec Guinness at his most inventive and his most touching. The way he handles the scene where he strolls into Emily’s sickroom to suffuse it with morning cheer and finds she has died in the night passes description. Wain, whose belief in the poetry and power of electricity borders on madness and sometimes plummets over the edge, is a lost soul who’s found, then lost again after Emily dies and unexpectedly found once again. Cumberbatch locates him in the eerie far corners of the dramatic universe, where the sublime Claire Foy, who looks here like a young Elsa Lanchester, partners him exquisitely. Technically Emily is a supporting role, since she dies halfway through the movie, but she hovers over it after she’s gone. (The image of her, close to death, keeps returning like a totem.) And that fine character actor Toby Jones brings tremendous warmth to his part as the man who serves as editor and mentor, adviser and friend to the benighted Wain; Jones shows sides we’ve never seen from him before.

No Ealing picture ever looked like The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. The interiors are warm and glowing – firelit – and the outdoor scenes are rich in pastels. When Emily and Louis stroll through an oak forest that becomes their most treasured place, the hues are first autumnal, then wintry, and when we see it in springtime the image turns magical: the colors take on a candied shimmer and begin to change like those of a painting in process. When we get a glimpse of his nightmares, which he puts down in his notebooks and Emily peeks into as soon as she comes to work in the Wain household, they look like experimental silents, in black and white, flickering and fragmented. (The breathtaking cinematography is by Erik Wilson, who shot The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the Paddington movies.) The director, Will Sharpe, who worked on the screenplay with Simon Stephenson, is also an actor; this is only his second feature, but it doesn’t look or feel like any other movie I can think of, and the leaping way the narrative unfolds is distinctive too. You lose some of the details: the nightmares disappear from the movie after Louis marries Emily – until a voyage from New York, where he’s employed for a couple of years by the Hearst papers, back to England brings them back more vividly than ever – and I wanted to know whether her presence in his life had driven them away. But this omission and a few others are more than a fair trade-off. Sharpe is one of the recent British filmmakers – like Paul King, who directed Paddington and Paddington 2, and Andy Serkis, the magnificent motion-capture actor from The Lord of the Rings and the latest reboot of the Planet of the Apes series who directed Breathe (co-starring Claire Foy) and Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle – doing superb work that’s definitely off the beaten track. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain includes a kaleidoscopic electrical cat montage, and delicately wondrous throw-away images like one of Louis walking the beach pensively with his family, leading his cats in covered baskets on a cart. Nothing about the film is even slightly conventional, including the musical score by his brother Arthur Sharpe, which uses a theremin to build in soft meows.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

1 comment:

  1. So intriguing, and I love that notion of using a theremin to "build in soft meows..." nice one.

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