The Current War

 

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Lights out in an ill-judged account of what is known as the war of the currents.

 
Current War, The

Electric dreams: Benedict Cumberbatch

  

The leading players here are Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland and Nicholas Hoult. Given that line-up, I was hoping that The Current War would prove better than its reputation suggested. Alas, it isn’t: indeed, it’s actually worse. The material is itself partly to blame, although in theory it could have been an asset. The focus is very much on the rivalry between Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Shannon) who in the 1880s went head to head in promoting contrasted electrical systems that would transform not just America but the world. Among other differences, the key one was Edison’s belief in direct current being essential and Westinghouse’s deployment of alternating current. This is history that many of us (myself included) know far less about than we should, so The Current War is treading unfamiliar ground that might have been intriguing.

 

In the event though, despite Edison sounding like a man of principle (an inventor in many spheres he declares his abhorrence of any discovery that could be used to kill), we find that the rivalry led Edison to use underhand means to put down his opponent while Westinghouse himself, entrepreneur and engineer, seems to be in the game for profit. When Edison claims that Westinghouse’s use of alternating current will lead to deaths, we are not sure how honest he is being since he also sets out to ensure that his rival will be the one involved in the first use of the electric chair realising that it might well bring bad publicity in its wake. In consequence, the audience has no one to root for, and one even wonders if the subsidiary figure of Nikola Tesla (Hoult) would have provided a better central character (Tesla worked briefly for Edison, failed in his efforts to go it alone in the same field and then linked up with Westinghouse, his story proving to be one of endeavour and tragedy followed by posthumous reassessment).

 

However, even if the lack of characters that we care about and the emphasis on technical details in the dialogue both become drawbacks, what really sinks The Current War is the direction by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon - and that’s regardless of adjustments that he made to the film after it was trounced at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. Rarely have I seen a movie so over-directed. This takes two forms being evident in restless and pointless camera movements which suggest a lack of confidence in the material and no less so in a shooting style which makes smooth editing impossible. The use of ‘Scope serves to make these errors of judgment even more in your face and, to top it off, there is a relentless, pulsing music score that is one of the most tiresome I have encountered in years. The production values are not bad and the cast do what they can, but nothing can prevent this film from being a bitter disappointment. Furthermore, should any viewers be consoled by the fact that they are learning some history here they will be taken aback by the end credit which admits that numerous characters and events are fictitious.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Tuppence Middleton, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen, Tim Steed, Simon Manyonda, Conor MacNeill, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Nigel Wilcock, Oliver Powell, Nancy Crane, Liza Ross, Craig Roberts, Corey Johnson, Colin Stinton.

 

Dir Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Pro Timur Bekmambetov and Basil Iwanyk, Ex Pro Benedict Cumberbatch, Adam Ackland and Martin Scorsese, Screenplay Michael Mitnick, Ph Chung-Hoon Chung, Pro Des Jan Roelfs, Ed David Trachtenberg and Justin Krohn, Music Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Costumes Michael Wilkinson.

 

Lantern Entertainment/SunnyMarch/Filmrights/Thunder Road Film/Bazelevs-Entertainment Film Distributors.
108 mins. USA/UK/Russian Federation. 2018. Rel: 26 July 2019. Cert. 12A