The Current War

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Starring

Benedict Cumberbatch Michael Shannon Tom Holland

Anticipation.

Reception at TIFF 2017 was lukewarm…

Enjoyment.

Shannon is always good value, but it’s quite dry.

In Retrospect.

Hardly an electrifying tell-all.

This star-studded retelling of the rivalry between electricity magnates Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse lacks dramatic spark.

Despite being one of the most beloved American cultural figures of all time, there hasn’t been a biopic about Thomas Edison since 1940, when Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy portrayed the inventor at different stages of his life in companion films Young Tom Edison and Edison, the Man. Perhaps Americans just aren’t as obsessed with biopics as the British, but it’s curious that the man regarded as one of the founding fathers of the motion picture should be conspicuously absent from them. 

Even Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, which tells the story of Edison’s rivalry with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla, almost didn’t see the light of day, being one of two films caught up in the distribution chaos that ensued following the dissolution of The Weinstein Company (the other being Neil Burger’s The Untouchables remake, The Upside). Still, it’s here now, some two years after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, with a heavyweight cast and some swooping camera work from Park Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison with the same fast-talking manner he seems to adopt in all his American roles. It feels anachronistic given the 19th century setting, a contrast from Michael Shannon’s more statesmanly George Westinghouse, resplendent with a handsome moustache. For what it’s worth, Tuppence Middleton gets a raw deal as Mary Stilwell Edison, Edison’s supportive but neglected wife, whose untimely death profoundly affects him for about five minutes. Katherine Waterston fairs a little better as Westinghouse’s wife, Marguerite Erskine, but only just – there’s more characterisation given to Matthew Macfadyen’s stuffy banker JP Morgan than the women closest to the electricity magnates.

At Cumberbatch’s side is perma-perky Tom Holland as Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull, while Nicholas Hoult gamely sports a Russian accent and some stylish togs to portray the inventor Nicola Tesla, widely regarded as Edison’s greatest rival in the race to bring electricity to the masses. The tussle concerns Edison’s ‘DC’ direct current, and Westinghouse and Tesla’s ‘AC’ alternating current, and the war waged in the papers and behind closed doors to discredit one another.

There are some truly strange and distracting stylistic choices – Chung-hoon’s distinctive camerawork feels at odds with the period setting, as does Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran’s sometimes electronic, sometimes strings score. While the real-life story of The War of the Currents is fascinating, it makes for a fairly middling screen drama. There isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw in the film, it’s more that it inspires only apathy, offering very little in the way of insight. Given the subject matter, it’s a disappointingly unstimulating affair.

Published 26 Jul 2019

Tags: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon Benedict Cumberbatch Michael Shannon Nicholas Hoult Tom Holland

Anticipation.

Reception at TIFF 2017 was lukewarm…

Enjoyment.

Shannon is always good value, but it’s quite dry.

In Retrospect.

Hardly an electrifying tell-all.

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