Reviewed by Nigel Watson
Before the First World War, Louis was famous for his detailed and whimsical illustrations of cats but through a series of personal tragedies, bad financial decisions, ill health and plain bad luck he faded into obscurity.
Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Louis is shown as a dynamic young man full of ideas and dreams. He embraces everything from writing an opera to boxing. He is dismally unsuited to either of those two interests, and his attempts at inventing are equally impractical. In contrast, Louis is brilliant at quickly illustrating animals and people, and this ability becomes his main source of income.
Louis certainly needed the money. In 1880 his father died and he became the main breadwinner for his mother and five sisters. Unfortunately, he was far too unworldly to be a practical businessman underlined by the fact that although his work adorned magazines, newspapers, books, advertisements and people’s walls he did not gain a penny in royalties, because he did not copyright his work. Sometimes it was a case of bad luck, like when a batch of his cat themed toys got sunk by a German U-boat as it was being shipped to America.
The film shows how through the mentorship of Sir William Ingram played by Toby Jones, Louis’ increasingly anthropomorphised cat illustrations took hold of the public imagination. ‘A Kitten’s Christmas Party’ that Sir William commissioned for the Christmas 1886 edition of his ‘Illustrated London News’ made a huge impression on the public and cemented his reputation as the world’s most famous cat artist.
As his career as an illustrator progressed his domestic life lurched from one crisis to another. A bright spark in his life was the governess, Emily Marie Richardson played by Claire Foy, whom Louis employed for his younger sisters. She briefly brought domestic stability and joy to his chaotic existence. Director Will Sharpe shows this time in an idyllic light when the couple share their love with an abandoned kitten they call Peter. They treated Peter like a child and encouraged by Emily, Louis used him as the subject of many sketches that developed into the life-like cat pictures promoted by Sir William.
Domestic tragedies took a toll on his mental health, that at best had a tenuous relationship with the normal view of the world. He seriously thought that cats would evolve to stand on their hindlegs, turn blue and speak with humans. He saw the beauty of electricity pulsing throughout the world and through the bodies of cats, yet he feared drowning and the power of lightning storms. The film hilariously shows a dream he has of the future in 1999 but nightmares increasingly dominate his mind.
Whether due to mental health issues or not his cat illustrations became more colourful with frenzied backgrounds, and he sunk into poverty and placed in mental institutions. Although he was almost forgotten, his plight was highlighted by the likes of H.G. Wells who headed a campaign in 1925 to finance him to live in a better institution where cats would be allowed. As Wells put it in a BBC radio broadcast:
‘He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.’
The script by Will Sharpe and Simon Stephenson reminds us of this forgotten eccentric character who enthusiastically embraced the ethos of the period where science and arts were increasingly showing the world in a new light. Like any good biopic it makes you want to know more about its central character and rediscover his art.
This is a lively, electrifying, colourful, biopic of an artist who had a catastrophic life that despite lurching between tragedy and success produced pictures that evoke pleasure and joy for everyone who sees his distinctive work.