The Current War Review
Despite the play on words, there's still some irony that The Current War was actually made in 2017
Is a biopic still a biopic when it’s got almost three subjects? The Current War asks this question by accident, and throws in a bunch of wacky camera angles and cinematic trickery to confuse things even more.The Current War tells the story of, well, current. It’s the 1880s, and Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is showing off his brand-spanking-new electrical light. His bravado and ego inspire George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to move from the world of gas to the slightly more exciting world of electricity.
The long and the short of it is that Edison was working with direct current, while Westinghouse adopted the more efficient (but more dangerous) alternating current. Edison tried to publicly discredit AC, which led to a feud between himself and Westinghouse.
The film’s script is well paced, though there is a definite sense of awareness of its technical and potentially snoozeworthy subject matter
The Current War is ostensibly about this battle, though it also puts forward the idea that though they tussled intellectually, the two weren’t actually too different. Cumberbatch’s Edison is portrayed as more of a wild card than Shannon’s Westinghouse – an interesting casting decision that makes the film eminently watchable. Edison is arguably the slightly easier role; after all, Cumberbatch has several self-opinionated and haughty geniuses on his filmography at this point. Shannon meanwhile is cast quite against type, and plays Westinghouse as an impressively-mustachioed man of quiet determination and much pride.
Tom Holland plays Edison’s harassed assistant Samuel Insull, and puts in yet another likeable, relatable and inoffensive performance. Katherine Waterston is given a meatier and more rewarding role as Marguerite, a supportive but strong, suspicious and hardy partner to Westinghouse who brings new life to the film with each appearance.
There aren’t really any villains here – both leads are presented as extremely ambitious men who perhaps take their rivalry to a dangerous place. Added to the mix is Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who urges Edison to reconsider using AC current – if this storyline sounds at all dry, it is presented in a much more absorbing and interesting way in the film.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) imbues the film with an artsy feel, thanks to a fascinating and varied selection of shots, effects and lenses. There are close-ups quickly followed by medium shots, overhead shots which quickly switch to low angles, and a movement of the camera into the actors’ faces that makes for an interesting – if a little jarring – aesthetic.
The film’s script is well paced, though there is a definite sense of awareness of its technical and potentially snoozeworthy subject matter. Perhaps this is why Gomez-Rejon opted for such a slew of camera techniques throughout the film. While it’s a visually interesting style, it actually ends up distracting from what could have been a fascinating character battle between the scientists. In the end, despite a surplus of electricity, the film doesn’t really do a thorough job of illuminating the titanic battle over current.
In the end, despite a surplus of electricity, the film doesn’t really do a thorough job of illuminating the titanic battle over current
The film’s issues in production are well documented, and could go some way to explain the lacklustre, somewhat disjointed and generally quite dry tone. It’s tough not to compare the film to Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, which managed to introduce elements of magic, rivalry, intrigue and drama without seeming as disjointed, odd and slightly dull as this film.
There isn’t quite enough exposition, and we’re just sort of supposed to understand the rivalry relationship between our two leads. Perhaps in an effort to make this film about current be as electrifying as possible, the film moves along at incredible speed, barely stopping to set up any drama or give us any satisfying pay-offs or reasoning.
Gomez-Rejon and the cast do their best to make this an interesting film, but the problems with the production likely predate any of their involvement anyway. What would have likely been an interesting drama based around Westinghouse, Edison and Tesla’s rivalry is packed full of cinematic effects and a speed-of-light pace that doesn’t do it many favours. It’s mostly interesting to look at and somewhat compelling to think about, but overall there's not enough here to really warrant a trip to the Big Screen.
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