VIFF 2021 Review: The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain

Benedict Cumberbatch plays a troubled eccentric artist with a passion for cats in The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain.

Have you ever heard of artist Louis Wain? I should hope every cat lover has heard of him. You may have seen his art in the past, but may now know it. The film The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain is a colorful portrait of a colorful artist.

The film begins set in 1925. Louis Wain is in a mental institution. On the radio is a voice giving support for the troubled Louis Wain. He talks of how Wain fascinated us all with cats. He also talks of the need to raise funds to bring Wain to a better mental institute that allows him to paint and be with cats. The film then goes back to 1880. Wain is 20 years old and his father has passed. He is the first-born of six and the only son. His father’s passing now puts on him the responsibility of being the family breadwinner.

This is not a responsibility Wain can do easily. He has a history of losing jobs and his drawings and paintings are not exactly the type that can win the general public over, nor newspapers looking for illustrators. This is troubling for all the family members, but it’s oldest sister Claire who really lets Louis know through her frustrations how much of a pressure this is. On a train trip, he meets businessman Asim Chaudhry who sees his drawings and gives him advise. Wain’s drawings do attract the attention of Sir William Ingram: the Managing Director of the Illustrated London Daily News. Ingram gives him the opportunity to draw for the paper, but on a part-time basis. This, along with other odd jobs, is enough to provide for the family and allow them to hire a governess to teach the three youngest daughters: Emily Richardson. Emily is ten years Louis’ senior, but Louis can’t help but take a liking to her. During this time, Louis also keeps his drawings of his inspirations and fears inside a personal journal of his own.

Over time, the money Wain is able to provide goes so far, adding to the frustration. Wain’s fast swimming at the Turkish Baths gets on people’s nerves, even though Ingram is willing to tolerate it. Louis keeps on having recurring nightmares of drowning in a capsized ship: nightmares he’s had since childhood and may explain the scar underneath is lip. Louis’ feelings to Emily are feelings he feels he has to keep hidden, but there’s Shakepeare’s The Tempest the whole family plans to see in the theatre. Louis invites Emily by slipping the ad under the door, and she accepts. Before the Show, Emily reads his journal and is surprised by the paintings and drawings. During the play, it goes into a scene of a story boat trip, which causes Louis to leave for the bathroom. After he’s finished, he sees Emily. Emily reveals she read his journal and understands him and they kiss for the first time!

The romance of Louis and Emily does not go well with the family. They don’t want to be the source of scandal because of the class-gap and age-gap of the two. At the same time, Louis learns of photography from a boxing match he watches with Asim. Asim tells him that photography can replace illustrations for newspapers in the future. That does not settle well with Louis not just because of his job, but he feels photography lacks the imagination and electricity of drawings. Then one day, the closeness of Emily and Louis gets to the point Claire has to fire Emily. It’s then he asks Emily to marry her. He reveals to her he doesn’t care what others think of them both. Emily accepts, revealing she doesn’t care either. The two find a home in the countryside to avoid controversy and they have a happy first six months.

Then the news come Emily has fatal cancer. Louis agrees to live with her the final years of her life. Then one rainy day, they hear a meowing out in their yard. It’s a kitten and he’s freezing. The two take him in and they make a pet out of him. Making a pet out of a cat was seen as odd in British society as cats are seen as either nuisances or only good for catching mice on the farm. However the two decide to make a pet out of the cat and name him Peter. For the next three years, it’s just Louis, Emily and Peter together. However Emily’s condition deteriorates. Louis doesn’t know how to deal with life without Emily, but Emily encourages him to continue to live on and not be afraid to make his imagination come alive.

After Emily dies, Louis secludes himself and is broke. Claire gets on his case for that. However it’s after this time, he learns the more he hurts, the better he paints. He starts creating cat drawing and cat paintings. The images depict cats as charming, cute and mischievous. The works attract many a reader of the Illustrated London News. His cat paintings start selling like nobody’s business. He even gets honorary memberships to cat societies in London who always saw cats as pets long before the mass public did. This brought him considerable fame, but not fortune. It’s after receiving a lot of debts he confesses to sister Claire he didn’t copyright his works and people are copying and getting their own piece of the action. The only way he can make money is through his original paintings. Ingram came to the rescue and gave him additional work in illustrations.

Then in 1900, Peter dies. Wain is heartbroken. Soon he learns the harder he grieves, the bigger his imagination grows. He then paints multi-colored pictures of cats that take his art in a new direction. It grants him bigger fortune, which comes in time as Marie is diagnosed as schizophrenic and needs to be sent to a better hospital. Unfortunately the luck runs out after a few years and fortune went just as fast as it came. He attempts to market his work in the United States, which attracts the attention of William Randolph Hearst and Max Case. The trips to New York give him a bigger fascination with electricity, but the boat trips also bring back his recurring nightmares of drowning on a ship.

Bad business decisions continue to get Wain sudden riches and back into debt. Over the years, Wain loses people close to him like his mother, sisters Marie and Claire and his mentor William Ingram. Then in 1925, he has a violent mental outburst that puts him in a metal hospital. Asim sees him in the hospital. He notices his drawings lack the magic he once had. Also Louis appears dead inside as there are no cats. This allows Asim to team up with H. G. Wells and his three surviving sisters to start a fundraiser to help bring Wain to a better hospital where he’s allowed a better quality of life where he can draw, paint, be around nature, and cats. The hospital where he spends his last years is much better and it allows Louis to again experience his image of paradise. The paradise he and Emily possessed together.

I’m sure anyone who’s seen Louis Wain’s art may have mixed feeling about it. Some will think it’s not for them, especially people who don’t care for cats or can’t stand them. Others will wonder how one can call cat pictures art? Some can even look at some of his more colorful pictures of cats in his latter years and even see them as ‘psychedelic!’ Hard to believe they’d have this ‘psychedelic’ look many decades before the psychedelic look of the 60’s that is iconic of the term ‘psychedelia’ would come to be.

The film also shows how Louis Wain possessed a lot of traits that are common among even the most famous artists. Firstly it shows Louis Wain’s imagination: one common artistic trait. It takes you into his love of cats and his fascination of electricity and how he turned it into his art. It shows how he used his imagination to create his paintings. The best artists always did. His imagination gave Brits a new look towards cats. No longer were they seen as good just for mousing or nuisances. They could be seen as pets. The film also shows you the eccentricities he had during his lifetime. Artsy people are known for possessing eccentricities. The film showed how Wain was both a non-conformist and what we call today a ‘slacker.’ He didn’t care what society thought of him when he married Emily, and neither did she. Artists are also still seen as non-conformists in the way they lived. He was unable to maintain a real job and a steady income sweating it out; another common trait we see in a lot of artists.

The film includes the family pressures he faced, being the oldest of the Wain children and only male. Wain had to act as a provider to his family and his artistic talents were more of a hindrance in that aspect. Especially financially as there would be times he’d starve, times he’d prosper and times when his riches were all squandered. Many of the best artists would not receive their renown in their lifetime and some like Van Gogh starved. Wain received his renown, but still had periods of poverty. The film also takes one into the heartaches he experienced in his life like the death of his only wife Emily and the death of his first cat Peter. Even though he would have many cats since, Peter would still remain his beloved and he would never get over his death. It showed the deaths of his two sisters, his mother and his biggest mentor. He noticed the more he grieved the better and the more imaginative he painted.

The film also takes you into Wain’s mental torture. It’s a common belief among people that an artist should be the type to suffer for their art. Artists have been known to be people that suffer inside and Wain was no exception. One will notice early on in the film as they learn Louis had recurring nightmares of drowning upon a sinking ship. That was a nightmare that would never leave him. Many people into art want to see artists draw out or paint out their pain. Wain reminds us that even artists that do supposedly ‘happy’ pictures like his cat paintings also can possess inner demons and they make one their own worst enemy as much as they make them an artistic genius. Being type-two bipolar himself, director Will Sharpe let it be known about Wain and what it’s like to have those troubles.

Biographical films have changed a lot in the last twenty years. Most of the time, you see the story unravel itself over time without narration. Very rarely do you see a modern biographical film go from start to finish about their lives. This film does a lot of ‘traditional’ ways of going about the biographical film, but instead of it being a setback for the film, it enhances it. Hearing the narration from Olivia Colman is a delight to hear. Also the narration of the film actually adds humor to the film and the story. Seeing Louis Wain’s life unravel from the turning point of his life in 1880 up to his death in 1939 actually helps make the film instead of hinders it. The film even includes moments in his life that become picture perfect moments for his drawings and paintings. The film even shows times in Wain’s life when it becomes moments for his best work. However it’s shown imperfectly and sometimes becomes uneven with the story. I’ve seen biographic films of artists before. Often they try to mix the life experiences and mentalities of the artist in with some of their biggest art works. This film does it very well for the most part, but there are times when it comes off as lacking consistency or out of place.

This is a very good work from director Will Sharpe. He’s co-directed two films before with Tom Kingsley, but this is the first film he holds his own in. The film he directs and the story he co-wrote with Simon Stephenson is an impressive artistic biography. It’s as much of a comedy as it is a drama. It follows the ‘traditional’ way of making a biographical film, but it’s more of a benefit than a drawback. These aspects make the film. The layout of the film also works for the most part, despite the flaws being noticeable. Nevertheless it does tell us a lot about Wain. It reminds us that he was a troubled man who did not make a lot of smart decisions, had a tough family life and was mentally troubled. However it was his imaginative way of looking at things, his view of the beauty of the world, his love for cats, and the reassurance of Emily’s love for him that gave him his drive to create.

Benedict Cumberbatch did an excellent job in his portrayal of Louis Wain. He did a great job in showing both the comical side and the tragic side of the man which made the film impressive to watch. There weren’t too many standout supporting performances, but Claire Foy was very good as Emily Wain. She was very good in playing the woman that understood his mental troubles and still loved him. She was also good in showcasing how she was the one who inspired Louis to paint his imagination and to still continue to inspire even after her passing. Of the sisters, Aimee Lou Wood was the standout as Claire: the sister who was frustrated by Louis’ misdoings, but ended up admiring him as she was about to pass. Toby Jones was also an occasional scene-stealer as William Ingram, as was Taika Waititi as Max Case and Adeel Akhtar as Asim Choudhry. Standout technical elements are the cinematography by Erik Wilson and the score by Arthur Sharpe: Will’s brother.

The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain is more than just a biographical film of an artist. It takes one into the mind of the artist in his inspiration and of his troubles. Sometimes it doesn’t make complete sense or appear all together, but it is an excellent film that will get you interested in the artist and his work.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo rabbit
A young Hitler youth (played by Roman Griffin Davis) seeks guidance from an imaginary Adolf Hitler (played by director Taika Waititi) in Jojo Rabbit.

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

You’ll think that now is not a good time for a film like Jojo Rabbit. A film about a Hitler youth who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend? I mean you have the rise of neo-Nazi groups and alt-right factions creeping up as well as the ‘woke’ people on the internet getting offended and hostile over things. Is this the right film to have out now?

The film begins in Berlin in the latter years of World War II. A ten year-old boy named Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler is all dress for the weekend at Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, camp. He’s not confident he can do this; he’s socially awkward and can’t even tie his shoelaces right. However he does receive encouragement from his imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler. Hitler hypes him up with so much excitement, Jojo goes running down the street shouting “Heil Hitler” like a maniac! That is until he meets up with his best friend Yorki just before arriving for what he expects to be the ‘best weekend ever.’

The camp is being taught by former army officer Captain Klenzendorf and assisted with Fraulein Rahm who’s dedicated to the Third Reich and even gave birth to fifteen children! The boys are taught all sorts of attack games and they end the first night with a book burning rally. The next day during a training session, some older boys give a lecture to the younger boys about being brutal and having no mercy when killing. They hand-pick Jojo to kill a rabbit with his bare hands. Despite all the boys except Yorki urging Jojo to kill it, he doesn’t have what it takes. The older boy then snaps the rabbit’s neck and calls Jojo ‘Jojo Rabbit’ which all the other boys except Yorki do. Hitler spots Jojo alone crying. Hitler then reminds Jojo of the cunning feisty traits of the rabbit and encourages him to ‘be the rabbit.’ This pumps Jojo up so much, he’s““` all in to try the next exercise, which is throwing a Stielhandgranate. Jojo yanks it out of Klenzendorf’s hand and throws it without fear. Thing is the grenade bounces off a tree and lands by Jojo’s feet which Hitler runs off from. The grenade explodes with Jojo alone!

After months of hospitalization, Jojo has mostly recovered but his left face has visible facial scars and walks with a limp on his left leg. His mother Rosie is happy to take him home for some time. However Rosie does bring him to the office where she kicks Klenzendorf for allowing Jojo to be exposed to something so dangerous. Klenzendorf has been demoted to the office and is given the task by Rosie to make Jojo feel included. Klenzendorf agrees to let Jojo spread propaganda leaflets and collect scrap metal for the war effort, which Jojo does wearing a cardboard robot outfit and carry a wagon!

Jojo comes home one day expecting his mother. Instead he hears a rattle in the house. He senses it’s coming from the room of his older sister Inge, who died of an illness years ago. Jojo later finds out a teenage girl is hiding between the walls. The girl is a Jewish girl his mother is hiding and is a former classmate of Inge’s. Jojo threatens to expose her to the Gestapo but the girl named Elsa reminds him if he does, his mother will be executed. Hitler is shocked when he hears a Jew is hiding in the house. Hitler asks Jojo to work something out. Jojo works out he will keep Elsa a secret as long as she helps him with a book he’s writing: a book about Jews. Elsa agrees to do the writing and drawing. Elsa makes up things like Jews having horns and mind-reading. That especially shocks Hitler to learn about this girl and her powers. The book impresses Klenzendorf as he meets Jojo at the army pool as Jojo undergoes physical rehab.

This puts a strain on the relationship between Jojo and his mother, which Hitler slyly observes at the dinner table. Jojo accuses Rosie of being unpatriotic and his angry that his father has been away for a long time. Rosie tries to reassure Jojo of having a positive attitude, even as she knows the truth of what happened to her husband. There’s even one day Rosie gets Jojo out of his Nazi uniform and into real clothes for a nice day out and a fun bike ride home, much to Hitler’s chagrin! As time passes, Jojo continues to ask Elsa questions and even tries to deliver fake letters in the name of Elsa’s boyfriend Nathan. Elsa helps Jojo with his book and Jojo realizes he’s in love with Elsa. This gets on Hitler’s nerves as he’s insisting to Jojo that she’s evil.

One day the Gestapo search Jojo’s house along with Klenzendorf. They come across Elsa and she poses as Inge. She even answers the question about Inge’s birthday properly. The Gestapo decide to leave them alone. However it doesn’t stop Elsa from fearing she will die soon. That day out while collecting metal, Jojo is mesmerized when he sees a butterfly, but soon sees his mother hanged. He tries to take his heartbreak out on Elsa with a knife, but fails. Elsa nevertheless hugs Jojo as he’s crying. As the two watch the city get bombed, they both learn that they’re both orphans who lost all their family.

As the city lays in ruins, war action have to be carried out. Jojo is shocked to see Yorki as a soldier and given military actions. All the Hitler Youth have to become soldiers now! He’s even shocked to learn from Yorki that Hitler committed suicide and Germany’s being attacked by almost every front. The boys are given military actions by Fraulein Rahm including Yorki as a sniper and Jojo given a soldier’s coat to disguise himself. Jojo is shocked at everything he sees from dead civilians to children firing guns off to an explosion that kills Rahm. At first Jojo is imprisoned by Soviet soldiers. However he bumps into Klenzendorf. As he knows he will be executed by the Soviets, Klenzendorf tells Jojo he has an admiration for his late mother’s courage. He also tries to get Jojo out of any Soviet mistreatment and has him passed off as a Jew.

As the war ends, Jojo is relieved that Yorki survived the warfare. He just won’t die! However with the war over, it might mean saying goodbye to Elsa, which Jojo doesn’t want to do. Jojo gets that message as Elsa has the book completed with an image of Jojo next to a rabbit in a cage. Before he could, Hitler returns with a bullet-wound in his head. He’s lost it all, but Jojo has had it with him. Hitler tries to get one last piece of appreciation from him, but fails in grand style. The film ends on a positive uplifting note that’s fun to watch.

Now a lot of people have the attitude that Hitler and Nazism and the harms they caused should not be parodized. Especially in a time when even the slightest off-color comment from a well-known person can unleash a wave of wrath on social media like Twitter and could pave their way to their downfall. We should not forget that there have been parodies of Adolf Hitler in the past. There was animation like Looney Tunes’ The Ducktator, Walt Disney’s Stop That Tank and even Der Fuehrer’s Face where Donald Duck poses as Hitler. There has been live action film, especially from some Mel Brooks’ movies like The Producers and To Be Or Not To Be, and even recent examples like in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The most famous film parody of Hitler is 1940’s The Great Dictator. Charlie Chaplin didn’t exactly play Hitler but its obvious who he’s parodizing in his character of Adenoid Hynkel. Actually it was around World War II where Hollywood unleashed possibly released the most parodies of Hitler. And rightly so because Hitler wanted to take over the world, including the USA.

We should also keep in mind that this parody is not an original creation of Taika Waititi. Jojo is actually based off of a book by New Zealand-Belgian author Christina Leunens titled Caging Spies. The novel caught the attention of Waititi and he took a liking to it, especially since he himself is half-Jewish and half-Maori. Waititi has frequently described New Zealand as a racist country and a lot of negative comments about Jews you hear in this film are comments Waititi himself heard. So if anyone is alarmed with the Anti-Semitism they hear, basically it’s what has been said in the past and what was common belief in the past. Both the film and the novel also touch on a lot of things and experiments the Nazis used to do in the past. They may not have successfully cloned humans, but they did experiment with it. Fraulein Rahm may have shocked us in saying she had fifteen children, but there were women who bred constantly for creating more Aryan children. That scene where Yorki becomes a soldier and the scenes where the children have to fight as Germany was losing is also a disturbing truth. The Hitlerjugend was created to raise the boys to become soldiers as they reach adulthood but when it became clear Germany was losing, the Hitlerjugend became soldiers in vain to keep the Nazi regime alive. Those scenes were possibly the biggest non-comedic scenes of the film.

This film concept of a Hitler Youth having Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend is a concept that’s supposed to fail, but somehow it works like a charm. One thing we should keep in mind is that the Adolf Hitler we see on the screen is not the Adolf Hitler we know but the Adolf Hitler in Jojo’s mind. This Adolf who’s idiotic, incompetent, immature and even jealous represents the boy’s feelings of nationalism and there are many times he’s pushed to confront his feelings or even question them. In the end it’s clear Adolf is nothing but a bad influence on him. The film does not shy away from the anti-Semitic attitudes most of the Hitler Youth had, albeit making it look comedic.

The story is also a case where that grenade accident is the best thing to happen to Jojo. Being too injured to be involved with the Hitler Youth, it’s his mother Rosie that reminds him of the truth about love and beauty and what being a child should be. It’s also Elsa who is best at teaching Jojo about love and how it helps to overcome prejudices. Not to mention that Jews are people too with similar feelings like Jojo. It’s also where we learn the true heroes are Jews like Elsa who survived and Rosie who was hanged for being part of the resistance. Even that scene where Klenzendorf is captured by the Russians and about to face execution is powerful. There he admits to Jojo that being left out of the Nazi Youth was the best thing for him and his mother is the true brave one, and Jojo should have no part in any of the imprisonment or executions the Nazis like him are about to face.

SPOILER WARNING: This paragraph has details of the end. The ending is a unique situation. Elsa experiences the freedom she never thought she’d get in her lifetime. Even though she learns Jojo lied about who won. That dance scene is important as you have two children. One is Jewish and the other was a Nazi boy who first saw her as someone to bully but fell in love with her. Elsa lucked out from being captive from the Nazis. Jojo lucked out as he isn’t seen as a Nazi and he’s spared by Russian and American soldiers. Elsa lost her family and the boy she loves. Jojo lost his family. They have nothing but each other but they dance together. That’s a powerful scene, especially as Rosie talks of how dancing means freedom. The dance represents those two free orphans who lost a lot but both won in the end.

I have to give top acclaim to director/writer Taika Waititi. He takes an oddball story about a Hitler-obsessed Nazi child and turns it into a story with both humor and heart. He doesn’t shy away from humor that punches. It doesn’t punch as brutal as some of the humor from South Park or The Family Guy, but it does punch and somehow can even make those that claim they’re ‘woke’ laugh. Even the Anti-Semitic comments. I would describe this as ‘evil genius,’ but it’s the ‘evil genius’ of the best kind! Also deserving of acclaim is Roman Griffin Davis playing the little protagonist. This is his first-ever film role but he holds the film together from start to finish and masters it with near-perfect comedic charm. I expect to see more of him in the future. Back to Waititi, he was also excellent in playing the idiotic Hitler. Playing Hitler as an idiot is a big gamble in any film. I’ve seen portrayals of idiot-Hitlers before and most fail. Waititi’s Hitler works like a charm in this film.

Also worthy of acclaim is Scarlett Johannson. She does an excellent job of portraying a mother who’s hurting of loss of her husband and daughter, knows that her days are numbers as being a member of the resistance, and trying to get her son to adopt human values and lose his Nazi ways. Thomasin McKenzie is also excellent as Elsa, the girl who is determined to make Jojo see the light, but knows she’s up for a big challenge. Archie Yates is also a delight as Yorki, Jojo’s best friend, who adds in the right comedic touches. Additional humorous performances include Sam Rockwell as the depressed Captain Klenzendorf and Rebel Wilson as the ruthless, but colorful, Fraulein Lahm.

Jojo Rabbit also has a lot of standout technical efforts too. There’s the editing from Tom Eagles, the costuming from Mayes Rubio, the set designs from Ra Vincent and Nora Sopkova and the music from Michael Giacchino. Actually the mix of Giacchino’s score and classic rock songs, including some with a German-language version from the original artist, fit the film perfectly.

At the end, you will be convinced that Jojo Rabbit is the ideal comedy to be having in a hostile time right now. I will guarantee that even the ‘superwoke’ on Twitter who are set out to vilify any famous person who makes even the slightest off-color comment will be laughing too.