You don’t need to be a cat lover to enjoy this compassionate story
Louis Wain was a nineteenth-century English artist best known for his drawings of anthropomorphized cats, depicting these feline furballs of fun doing everything from playing musical instruments to spending evenings out at the opera. They were usually dressed, standing on two legs instead of four, and pulling human-like facial expressions while carrying out their rather uncharacteristic activities.
Wain provided cat pictures for a variety of different mediums, including newspaper comic strips, children’s books, and postcards, and it was his love of these animals that caused him to contribute to several charities, including the Society for the Protection of Cats.
Needless to say, Wain was a cat lover as well as a talented artist, and if you’re more of a cat person than a dog person, you will probably relate to his love for these animals. Of course, if you do have any cats at home, you will be more likely to find them curled up in a ball instead of standing on their two hind legs while playing poker with the tabbys from your local neighbourhood. Or so we assume!
Still, you don’t need to have an affiliation with cats to enjoy Will Sharpe’s biographical film. While it briefly touches upon Louis Wain’s artistry and the cat drawings that he created (keep watching throughout the end credits for examples of his work), it largely centres on Wain’s relationship with his family and his often erratic behaviour.
Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the role of the troubled artist and he is as reliably brilliant as ever, ably capturing Wain’s quirks and eccentricities. His performance sits well with the film’s oddball tone, which is as playful as the cats depicted in the artist’s works. The film is often funny and joyful, despite the tragedies that lie within its story, and as such, this is quite a delightful watch for anybody wanting to know a little more about Wain and his life story.
The film opens in 1881 when Wain was just a young man. We join him at a time in his life just after his father has died when he is trying to provide for his five younger sisters and his elderly mother. He is making a living as an artist but at this point, he hasn’t yet become the famous figure in the art world that he would later turn out to be. Instead, he is working part-time as an illustrator for The Illustrated London News under the editorship of Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), and trying to find other ways to support his family through music composition and playwriting.
As is now well-known, Wain didn’t become a famous musician or playwright. His talents didn’t extend as far as to accommodate these creative pursuits. But he did become a famous artist, largely thanks to the encouragement of his wife, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), who we first meet hiding in the closet at Wain’s family home on her first day working as the children’s governess.
Despite an initially frosty beginning, Wain and Richardson fall in love, and the two move into the country together where he takes on additional work as a freelance artist. When a stray cat walks into his garden, he and Emily decide to keep it as a pet (a practice that was quite unusual in the Victorian era) and it becomes the inspiration for the pictures that he would later create.
Sadly, as is the case with many famous creatives, Wain didn’t go on to have a happily ever after. His marriage to Emily was cut short when she tragically died of cancer and his already fragile mental health started to go into a steep decline. The film never becomes overly maudlin, despite the struggles that Wain faced late on in his life, but it takes the occasional turn into his dark reality to counter the rest of the film, which is rather whimsical in nature.
Biographies of this sort tend to wallow in their protagonist’s misery but this isn’t something you will find here. The director is certainly respectful of Wain and the troubles he went through, but he focuses more on the unconventional nature of his character than the mental illness that eventually blighted his life. This is more of an uplifting tale than a sad one, and even at the end of the film, when Wain has been placed in some kind of institution, there seems to be hope for the man who gave joy to many through his fanciful cat drawings.
There may be some who question Sharpe’s choice to remain upbeat within his telling of the artist’s story but he made a sensible decision. Wain delighted many people with his artwork so it’s quite fitting that this film should be equally as delightful. There is still room for the tragedies that marked Wain’s life but as he was a rather unconventional character, it’s right that the film should go against conventions too.
This is a beautifully made film, with stunning cinematography, a wonderful score, and outstanding performances from its ensemble cast, including Andrea Riseborough who gives a standout turn as Wain’s rigid but slightly loopy sister. It’s a compassionate look at a talented man, and whether you’re a cat person or not, you should have a good time with this one.
Verdict - 7.5/10