A stylishly shot period drama, charting the race to provide the world with electricity, should have been compulsive viewing. Instead, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicholas Hoult and Michael Shannon, fails to ignite.
Inventor Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) has already stunned America with his light bulbs but needs to find a way to efficiently conduct electricity and light up the entire country. Businessman George Westinghouse (Shannon) is his biggest adversary. The entrepreneur had initially believed the future was in gas. When he shifts his attention to electrical currents a bitter rivalry ensues between the two men.
The film’s opening sequences are frenetically paced, packed with information and unexpected camera angles, courtesy of DoP Chung-hoon Chung. Edison favours the direct electrical current (DC) whereas Westinghouse sets out to develop a system that uses an alternating current (AC). It’s cheaper and more powerful but, as Edison sets out to prove, far more dangerous and potentially lethal.
Edison is always in need of funding but insists he won’t accept money from anyone who deals in munitions or death. The banker JP Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) is his long-suffering benefactor. While demonstrating the hazards of using the alternating current, Edison kills a horse with one jolt and attracts the attention of those trying to find a more humane way to inflict the death penalty. The tension between Edison and Westinghouse ratchets up a notch when they find themselves in competition to light the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Determined to win at all cost, Edison abandons his scruples in an attempt to discredit his rival and they become embroiled in a bitter court case.
Early on, Edison loses his beloved wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) but barely pauses to grieve. He is supported by his loyal secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) while Westinghouse’s plucky wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) stands by her husband throughout. Meanwhile, a brilliant Serb inventor, Nikola Tesla (Hoult), has arrived on the scene but struggles to reap the necessary funds to continue his pioneering work and live the lavish life he aspires to. Edison employs Tesla in his lab at Menlo Park, New Jersey, but refuses to take him seriously so the young inventor tries his luck with Westinghouse.
The Current War was widely panned when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. Despite its star cast and celebrity backing, the film was dropped from its original distributor, The Weinstein Company, following the sexual abuse claims against the producer. It has been re-edited by Gomez-Rejon and is consummately well-acted. Somehow, though, the sparks just don’t fly in Michael Mitnick’s screenplay. It may be because the world it inhabits is unremittingly male, but The Current War feels like a history lesson with interesting visuals, rather than a compelling, fully-realised historical drama.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop