The Current War

A pedestrian, incomprehensible electricity drama that even the likes of Cumberbatch and Shannon cannot save.

If nothing else, The Current War – a largely incomprehensible account of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse’s battle for control of America’s electricity – can be credited with creating an entirely new genre: the anti-drama. Utterly devoid of any motivation or stakes (conceivable, relatable or entertaining), this re-edited version of the Weinstein-produced film from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has all the spark of a power station during a blackout.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison as a narcissistic, work-obsessed, spittle-producing neurotic (a big stretch for an actor who’s previously played Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Strange, Julian Assange and Victor Frankenstien, I’m sure). A perpetually bored-looking Michael Shannon is his nemesis, Westinghouse.

Their contributions to the world of science are introduced by the first of too many introductory paragraphs, which helpfully explains to the audience that ‘before electricity, the world was fuelled by fire’. This proves to be one of the more digestible pieces of exposition, with the rest delivered feverishly by every single cast member, leaving no space for character development, scenes of actual dramatic dialogue, or even visible human emotion. The only presences seemingly capable of such are Tuppence Middleton and Katherin Waterston as Edison and Westinghouse’s wives, respectively (though the two are fridged – one dies and another disappears altogether – before the halfway mark).

The film, originally screened and scheduled for release in 2017, arrives in a re-structured form after the departure of its disgraced producer. An end credits footnote gives special thanks to Thelma Schoonmaker, longtime editor for Martin Scorsese – whether she was drafted in to help rescue the project after it was shelved, or simply thanked as an inspiration is unknown. If the latter is true, this shambles reads as an insult. If the former is true, then the film has to have been so inherently broken that not even Schoonmaker could save it.

As it stands, this is a mess. Scenes have no natural flow, bumping into each other and ending suddenly. This is not helped by just how many locations are crammed into a 100-minute film with the aspirations of a 22-episode season of television. We jump from set-to-set so often it makes the planet-hopping opening of Rogue One look like Room.

Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon shoots the whole thing as if he’s trying to fit in everything except the actors: the frame is constantly full of tables, lamps, equipment and landscapes with performers squeezed into the corners – to say nothing of the ridiculous Dutch angles. More comical still is Michael Mitnick’s script. When Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult, armed with a wonky accent) is unceremoniously fired, his replacement smugly declares “Mark my words, no machine will ever bare the name Tesla!” – if it were any more on-the-nose it’d be a septum piercing.

With a – frankly rather stirring – score that occasionally lifts Hans Zimmer’s cues from Inception and the crowbarring in of Tesla, there’s an overriding sense that this is the Me and Earl and the Dying Girl director’s attempt to conquer The Prestige. Nolan’s laughter should be audible from space.


Updated: Jul 22, 2019

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