Louis Wain painted cats, hundreds if not thousands of cats. He painted the critters with big googly eyes, gathered round the dinner table, serving tea or slurping at straws. He painted them standing on their hind legs, holding golf clubs and swinging Ping-Pong paddles, and he painted them seated, driving cars and smoking cigars.
Premiering at the Telluride Film Festival (whose programmers find oddball biopics impossible to resist), the eccentric yet enjoyable “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” suggests that were it not for the prolific artist’s anthropomorphic paintings, English households might not have been quite so keen to embrace the independent-minded animal as a domestic pet. Personally, I’m skeptical that Wain was the cause — and besides, everyone knows cats can’t be tamed — although his influence can clearly be felt in the comic strips and cartoons that came after (Wain actually dabbled in cinema, developing the animated Pussyfoot character a decade before Disney hatched Mickey Mouse).
While the film’s fabric is amusingly embroidered with cats of all kinds, writer-director Will Sharpe’s strange and unexpectedly affecting portrait doesn’t seem terribly interested in the feline side of Wain’s life story. Rather, Sharpe (a Cambridge grad, former head of the school’s Footlights Revue and creator of Channel 4’s “Flowers” series) approaches the artist from more of a human-interest angle, presenting the man who gave England so much corny, kitschy, kitty pleasure as a tragic and half-forgotten figure.
This peculiar British comedy features an adorably awkward Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role — as appealing as an early-career Hugh Grant — and counts among its amusing ensemble not one but two of the actors who’ve played Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown.” The result plays a lot like Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” as quirky style-phile Wes Anderson might have directed it, minus the whole business of a deadbeat partner poaching credit for the work in question. Whether one considers said work to be worthy of a feature-length movie is almost entirely beside the point, since Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson (who also worked on Pixar’s recent “Luca”) have unearthed so much else that’s engaging about Wain’s story.
Louis, whose name rhymes with “chewy” and “ratatouille,” was born a gentleman in London but, through a lifetime of questionable decision, wound up destitute and neglected — but still drawing cats (by then, trippy, taffy-colored ones with spiky fur and electrified expressions). Setting the tongue-in-cheek tone for what follows, Olivia Colman’s narration characterizes Victorian England by “its bizarre social prejudices and the fact that everything stank of shit.” Sharpe delivers a world erupting with detail, combining busy wallpaper and brightly colored rooms with characters whose every sartorial choice competes for our attention, all crowded into the boxy confines of a 4:3 frame.
Shortly after Louis finds employment as a newspaper illustrator (Toby Jones plays his encouraging editor), it was something of a thrill for him to reject the conventions of polite society in order to elope with Emily Richardson (a radiant Claire Foy), the young woman whom his eldest sister, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), had engaged as a governess for their younger siblings. As the couple quits the cluttered family home for a cottage on the outskirts of town, the romance feels genuine — indeed, the fumbly, rule-bending bond between the two characters is the best thing about this odd little movie — but it was not to last.
Once Emily exits the film, which occurs right around the midway mark, Louis seems to lose his way. Certainly, his story becomes a lot less straightforward, although the movie treats this setback as the formative development in his career as a doodler of cats. Watching Louis work is one of the film’s curious pleasures: He’s depicted as a prodigiously swift illustrator, sketching with both hands at once, and producing portraits of humans and animals alike in a matter of seconds with a reliability that anticipates — and perhaps even surpasses — the emerging field of photography.
Louis Wain happened to exist at a time of great scientific innovation, and we’re told (by Colman, whose cheeky narration continues throughout) that he was especially obsessed with the concept of electricity, which might explain some of the already idiosyncratic fellow’s more out-there beliefs. He was convinced, for example, that cats might turn blue, walk upright and learn to interact with humans in their own tongue. Devious but not condescending, Sharpe’s sense of humor embraces those qualities that set Wain apart, which is cute early on but grows somewhat taxing as the story unfolds and his quirks increasingly feel like signs of mental illness — as in a recurring nightmare where Louis imagines himself drowning, or scenes when he pictures giant Cheshire cat faces superimposed on the heads of strangers.
Like many a biopic, this one would undoubtedly be stronger if Sharpe had focused on a narrower portion of Wain’s life, or structured the narrative differently, so that the tragedy of seeing such a popular artist abandoned by fans might have felt less banal. (Motion Picture and Television Fund is full of such stories.) Wain had the misfortune of not copyrighting his work, which was widely reproduced while depriving its creator of his share. The first voice we hear in the film, a radio broadcast crediting the artist for having “invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world,” belongs to Nick Cave, reading an appeal made by none other than H.G. Wells on Wain’s behalf.
Who might be the equivalent of Louis Wain today? A once-popular cartoonist perhaps, or a bland and beloved painter such as Thomas Kinkade? The movie needn’t make the case for Wain’s greatness to justify its own telling: His story is compelling, especially in its early chapters, and Sharpe’s distinctive style shows the director no shortage of tricks up his sleeve (with more to come in a career worth watching). The score, written by his brother Arthur, incorporates nontraditional elements like the theremin and the musical saw, reinforcing the movie’s all-around weirdness — though it’s no stranger than the enigmatic animals Louis Wain immortalized.