In this disappointing historical drama, bold visual effects barely compensate for a jargon-heavy and bafflingly inert narrative.
The Current War almost never made it onto the big screen. Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon’s film, which chronicles the rivalry between electricity pioneers Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who race to bring electricity to the masses with their competing Direct Current / Alternating Current electrical systems, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival back in October 2017. It was supposed to be distributed by The Weinstein Company and was shelved following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse then-allegations-now-crimes. Having been purchased by another studio, the long-delayed film finally makes its way into cinemas. So, was it all worth the wait?
Sadly, not really. It’s a lot of drumroll for nothing that feels like a missed opportunity to deliver an electrifying tale of a cut-throat rivalry that’s rooted in historical fact.
Rejon works with Park Chan-wook’s cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, resulting in a period drama that’s brimming with extravagantly stunning – if at times distracting – camerawork. This leads to the impression that the style and bold visual effects are doing the heavy lifting to compensate for the jargon-heavy and bafflingly (given the genuinely fascinating real-life story of the war of the currents) inert narrative that sees men in rooms explaining electricity over and over and over again. What’s genuinely galling though is that Gomez-Rejon’s third feature film boasts a star-studded cast that seemed like the perfect line-up to do the material justice: the always-brilliant Shannon emerges as the MVP, while Katherine Waterston and Tuppence Middleton do their best with the eye-rollingly clichéd material they’re saddled with, as the wives behind successful men.
Still, despite the cast’s efforts, nothing in this film manages to emerge from the shadow cast by Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Like The Current War, The Prestige centred on a professional rivalry and featured the figure of Nicola Tesla (then played by the late David Bowie, here by Nicholas Hoult) as a peripheral but key player in a professional face-off with high emotional stakes. Even if the discovery of electricity wasn’t centre stage in Nolan’s film, it still manages to be a more tantalizing and engaging drama about discovery and rivalry. By comparison, and like the recently released biopics Harriet and Radioactive, The Current War just feels like yet another missed opportunity that fails to shine bright.
The Current War / Directed by Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon (USA, UK, 2017), with Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton. Starts July 23.