“Why cats?” This innocent question arrives midway through “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” hovering over it like a mischievous smile. For some of us, of course, the only answer to this query can be: “Why not?” The answer was far more complicated for the real Wain, a British artist who in the 1880s became well-known for his distinctive, playful drawings of cats; his fame helped deepen a national appreciation for the Felis catus.
Wain’s work is easily found online, and while you may recognize it, the man remains more elusive. The modesty, ubiquity and naïveté of his art played a role. The drawings were mass produced, for starters, first appearing in newspapers that were probably soon used to wrap fish and chips (or torn into bits for the privy). They were also widely circulated on postcards, greeting cards, children’s books and other ephemera. But because he didn’t copyright most of his work, everyone owned it. The images were commodities of the humblest, most populist sort, not rarefied art-market fetishes.
“The Electrical Life,” a poignant biographical portrait starring an irresistible Benedict Cumberbatch, helps bring the man into focus, even if it is all a bit fuzzy. It’s tethered by a garrulous, lightly funny script by Simon Stephenson and the director, Will Sharpe, who’s taken on the material with both kindness and an elastic, mildly frisky approach toward the medium. In its biopic sweep, the movie is conventional, with a not-quite-cradle to not-quite-grave trajectory that allows Cumberbatch to inhabit the character across time, as Louis (pronounced Louie) matures, falls in love, finds fame and endures a series of crushing blows all while creating his magical, mystical cats.
Perhaps you are anxious to know more; maybe you are already gagging and not on a hairball. Despite their strange yet understandable YouTube eminence, cats are not for everyone, regrettably, and probably neither is “The Electrical Life.” It doesn’t help that the first few scenes jump around in time — it opens with an aged Louis and then shifts to his past, a tiresome framing device — and have the fussy, fluttering energy of a host who’s worried her party will be a bust. There’s a monochromatic funeral, a wash of dingy color and figures moving in slow-motion, and then, bam, Louis is racing around his clamorous London home alongside his mother and five unmarried sisters.
The opening’s quick-sketch bursts efficiently lay out the coordinates of Louis’s life: the dead father, the household of women and the difficulties to come. All this quasi-Dickensian bustling also has a stealthy, productively destabilizing function, partly because the slight freneticism (falsely) suggests a lack of directorial control. Soon enough Louis and the movie do get down to biopic business, nudged along by the soothing voice of its unseen narrator, Olivia Colman. And while the energy remains high and the pace brisk throughout, it becomes increasingly, painfully clear that the gentle chaos swirls through the early scenes because it’s swirling through Louis’s poor head.
For the most part, Sharpe gets into that head through action rather than mere explanation, by showing you Louis’s world and his great loves, both human and feline. There’s a lot of chatter, some of it delivered at near-breathless screwball (or dueling rapper) speed. The quick rhythms of the gratifyingly enunciated dialogue set the mood and the tone, and convey the everyday tumult both in Louis’s home and in his pinging, whirring mind. A polymath, he earns money drawing freelance illustrations for newspapers, but he’s also writing an opera, taking boxing lessons and studying electricity, a passionate habit that takes on mounting metaphoric resonance.
Louis and the story settle into a sweet groove when he meets Emily (the perfectly cast Claire Foy), who’s hired as a governess for his sisters. Their class differences make their romance a scandal for snoops and for Louis’s sister, Caroline (the equally well-cast Andrea Riseborough), a sweet-and-sour presence who has assumed the role of the family’s stern hand. Caroline fires Emily; Louis weds her. Cushioned by the steady if modest income now provided by an indulgent newspaper editor and unexpected cat fancier (Toby Jones), Louis and Emily move to the countryside, where they set up house in a cottage. It’s as lovely and sad as life, and then one day, they hear a faint mewling.
Emily profoundly changes Louis’s life, giving it purpose and meaning; the mewling stray, whom they name Peter, gives Louis a way to express that meaning and purpose. When Emily falls ill, Louis begins drawing Peter the Great (as he’s soon called) to distract her and lighten the fast-darkening mood. Drawn with quick, free gestures — the movie shows Louis sketching using both hands at once — these initial pictures are very true to life and classically realized with familiar shapes, dimensions, textures, whiskers and eyes. The images are sensitive, charming, and they convey the feelings that he can’t always put into words. Louis’s cats look like cats, until they don’t.
Over time, as Louis’s life takes a number of dramatic turns, his cat love deepens and his art changes, and so do both the movie and Cumberbatch’s layered performance, with its openness, tenderness and performative control. Louis is a funny, complicated character, and while the movie could have expanded its horizons (particularly in view of the changes roiling the art world), Cumberbatch fills in this expressionistic portrait exquisitely. Together he and Sharpe make it clear that while Wain became famous for his anthropomorphic drawings of cats, he was — with each feathery and bold stroke, with every wild smile and rounded eye shining with tears or lit by a strange fire — also drawing an indelible, kaleidoscopic and finally mysteriously, deeply human self-portrait.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Rated PG-13 for painful life events. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. In theaters.