Sparks fail to fly for Benedict Cumberbatch or Michael Shannon in this stodgy drama about the pioneers of electricity

the current war

Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. USA. 2017. 107 mins

Extravagant camera moves, woozy fish-eye lenses and a full-on assault of CGI fail to give this story of warring inventors much in the way of a dramatic charge. The story of the cut-throat competition between electricity pioneers Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) is opulently mounted but hampered by the fact that watching bewhiskered men in frock coats endlessly debating the merits of the direct current versus the alternating current system is simply not all that interesting.

Characters spend an inordinate amount of time explaining electricity to each other in dramatically inert, wood panelled chunks of exposition

The prestige project production values, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s heat from his debut Me, Earl And The Dying Girl, the Weinstein company backing and the Cumberbatch name should all provide marketing leverage for the picture. However unlike The Imitation Game, which managed a deft balance between its mathematical theory and human interest; and contrived to make a similarly prickly Cumberbatch central role sympathetic, The Current War gets bogged down in its own science.

The film captures the moment when something which had hitherto been a scientific curiosity, a parlour trick for the wealthy, was transformed into an essential tool for modern life and the powering force for an industrial revolution. It’s arguably the most important scientific breakthrough, in terms of its impact on the world, of the last two hundred years. But Michael Mitnick’s screenplay acknowledges the core problem in one wry line delivered by Edison: “Try to talk to him about electricity, that’ll put him to sleep for sure.” To tell this story requires a basic understanding of the physics involved. And to this end, characters spend an inordinate amount of time explaining it to each other in dramatically inert, wood panelled chunks of exposition.

The dark and the light (literally) side of electricity is explored using the device of parallel projects. Edison and Westinghouse jostle to claim the power supply to the Chicago World’s Fair; but both try and distance themselves from electricity as an instrument of death, via the electric chair.

Edison – a brilliant inventor with a P. T. Barnum flare for showmanship and a gift for tapping into the power of his own celebrity – is a tricky character with whom to empathise. Even an early family tragedy fails to soften the hard edges of his ruthless ambition. Cumberbatch’s pinched, steely demeanour in the role might be accurate, but it doesn’t give the audience much to warm to. Shannon’s Westinghouse meanwhile, is portrayed as reasonable, dignified, but unfortunately a little bit dull.

Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) fulfils the maverick genius role but is rather underused. Of the female characters, only Katherine Waterston, playing Westinghouse’s wife Marguerite, is given much in to work with, although Tuppence Middleton as Mary Edison is disarming in an abruptly curtailed role.

Cinematography, design and score all have an edge of frenetic desperation. Chung-hoon Chung, who shot The Handmaiden, It and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, tries every trick in the book to invigorate the stodgy subject matter. But the panicky tracking shots, off-kilter framing and lens flares are more distracting than anything else. Elsewhere, decisions are a little on the nose: a Giorgio Moroder-style pulsing electro influence on the score for example, and the decision to dress Marguerite Westinghouse in, you’ve guessed it, electric blue.

Production company: The Weinstein Company, Thunder Road Pictures, Bazelevs, Film Rites, SunnyMarch

International Sales: The Weinstein Company international;

Producers: Harvey Weinstein, Basil Iwanyk, Timur Bekmambetov

Screenplay: Michael Mitnick

Cinematographer: Chung-hoon Chung

Editor: David Trachtenberg

Production design: Jan Roelfs

Music: Dustin O’Halloran, Volker Bertelmann

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Macfadyen