“Cats have been worshipped as god and maligned as the evil allies of witchery and sin, but I think you are the first person to see that they are, in fact, ridiculous.” So says the wife of Louis Wain to her husband in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, a new movie about a Victorian-era illustrator who is credited for changing the reputation of the cat from a mere vermin catcher to ridiculous and cuddly pets through his charming drawings of anthropomorphized felines in newspapers and children’s books like Peter, A Cat O’One Tail: His Life and Adventures (1892), The Louis Wain Kitten Book (1903), Cat’s Cradle (1908), and many others. But his other claim to fame has a darker edge to it.
In Wain’s lifetime he wouldn’t only create cutesy illustrations but more psychedelic drawings full of bright colors and fractal patterns. Some say that these drawings were the results of Wain’s struggle with mental illness, perhaps schizophrenia, as he grew older. For years a series of his drawings featured in psychology textbooks after the psychologist Walter Maclay arranged them in an order that revealed how the deterioration of a patient’s mental state could be tracked through changes in their artistic style. The first drawings on Maclay’s chart are of soppy-eyed kittens, but as the years go by, Wain’s drawings become more saturated and more complicated until they dissolve into a kaleidoscopic soup of repeating patterns, the image of the cat hardly preserved. Though this characterization of this so-called deterioration has been put into question as many of these works aren’t dated and could’ve been made at any point in his life, this chart has defined Wain’s life story. In a lecture, the psychiatrist David O’Flynn once called this series “the Mona Lisa of asylum art.”
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain grabs on to twin aspects of Wain’s life—his legacy as a painter of saccharine pictures and a man beset by mental illness—in the service of a predictable portrait of a mad genius. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain, following his performances of other socially awkward yet brilliant Englishmen: Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014) and Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock (2010-2017). The movie begins by introducing us to Wain as a gifted illustrator who is eccentric enough to get into a bull ring to get a better look at the bovine he’ll be drawing for a newspaper. Wain had a wide range of interests, from boxing to inventing (he had an obsession with electricity), but these passions would be curtailed when his father died when he was 20 years old and he was left to provide for his mother and five sisters.
Caroline, the eldest sister, takes charge of the house and begs Wain to focus on providing for his family, but his financial acumen is lacking and he spends the rest of his life struggling with finances. The other sisters are reduced to giggling background noise, but it is their presence that brings Emily Richardson-Wain (Claire Foy) into Wain’s life. Smart but plain (if only she’d take off her glasses!), she and Wain fall in love and get married, despite their differences in class and age, with Emily 10 years Wain’s senior. Too soon into their blissful conjugal life, Emily falls ill, and it is during her battle with cancer that she and Wain adopt a kitten, Peter, who first kindles Wain’s enduring love of cats.
Wain paints and draws Peter for Emily’s comfort and, after her death, begins publishing silly illustrations of kittens that find massive popularity. But his sister Marie was diagnosed with schizophrenia when Wain was 30, and between that and his scandalous marriage to Emily, the family’s reputation suffered. But Wain would continue to keep himself and his family afloat through his cat pictures and children’s books.
Over time, however, he became more and more unstable, and the film shows him experimenting with abstraction as he mutters his theories about electricity. Eventually his sisters could no longer handle his violent outbursts, and he was sent to live in a pauper’s hospital. Through donations from his many fans (including sci-fi author H.G. Wells), Wain was moved to a more comfortable asylum where he continued to draw and kept cats as pets.
By the film’s logic, Wain’s struggles are what sparked his genius to ever greater heights. As Wain scribbles furiously into his sketchbook, the movie’s narrator says, “The more intensely he suffered, the more beautiful his work became.” In the end that’s all the movie ever amounts to: another formulaic story about a mad genius whose creations are the fruit of suffering.