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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain chronicles his life and love of cats

Most cat lovers (I include myself in that esteemed group) probably know Louis (Louie) Wain’s playful, wonderful drawings. That energetic artist honored his love felines in the late nineteenth into the twentieth century. But many of us aren’t aware of the trials of his life, both supporting his family and dealing with his own tragedies and mental challenges.

Director Will Sharpe’s animated, witty The Electrical Life of Louis Wain will remedy any deficiencies in terms of Wain’s emotional and physical details. That Sharpe establishes a spirited, often amusing approach to Wain’s life adds to the entertainment of his roller coaster fortunes without minimizing the hardships Louis encountered: his adored wife Emily dying young of breast cancer, his sister Marie suffering from schizophrenia, nightmares of drowning, coping with underemployment and social scandal while struggling to lift his mother and five unmarried sisters out of increasingly impoverished circumstances, failing to copyright his images, and his escalating mental illness.

Louis is the heart and soul of this biopic, an unusual one that impressively and appropriately shifts tone and style with his ups and downs. Of note, he draws quickly, very quickly, with both hands. His love for Emily is deeply moving, and many of his observations are quite striking, even as he slips into fantasy. When Wain needed help, H.G. Wells made a national appeal for him, signaling Louis’ importance and fame, changing and shaping the image of cats, then and now.

Simon Stephenson and director Sharpe’s quick-witted script adds entertaining value, along with Erik Wilson’s fabulous cinematography and Caroline Barclay’s art direction immersing us in Victorian England and into Louis’ increasing absorption in a surreal world where his cats speak their inner dialogue to him. These dazzling elements are buoyed by great acting, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis, Claire Foy as his wife Emily, Toby Jones as his employer Sir William, and all the supporting cast. Olivia Colman’s periodic narration offers insight and information, but it’s Louis and his cats that win the day.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.