The Current War movie review: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon's ambitious film short-circuits due to dull content

Anshu Lal

Nov 01, 2019 10:48:18 IST


The Current War almost did not make it to the theatres. Shortly after the movie – which was initially supposed to be distributed by The Weinstein Company – was premiered at the Toronto film festival in October 2017, it was shelved following sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

The distribution rights were eventually purchased by another studio, and director Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon heavily re-edited the version screened earlier, reportedly because he was not happy with the way Weinstein had originally taken over creative control of the film.

Sadly though, even The Current War: The Director’s Cut could not find a way to shake off the image of a dull, lifeless period drama. This is especially disappointing because the movie not only boasts a star-studded cast but is also the third feature film directed by the man who helmed the 2015 cathartic coming-of-age masterpiece Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

 The Current War movie review: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannons ambitious film short-circuits due to dull content

A still from The Current War. Twitter

The Current War is about the cut-throat rivalry between renowned American inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and esteemed entrepreneur George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over the electrical system that will get to power a late 19th-century world which has just discovered electricity. While Edison favours the relatively safe but expensive Direct Current (DC) system, Westinghouse backs the cheap but potentially dangerous Alternating Current (AC) system. Technically, inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) is also involved in this competition but his character in the movie is very clearly peripheral and, in fact, quite obscure.

Cumberbatch is definitely charismatic as Edison, who is portrayed in the movie mostly as more of a cocky, ruthless celebrity, primarily concerned about his reputation than the genius inventor he is largely known as in the world today. Cumberbatch effortlessly drifts between playing a caring husband and father, and a shrewd businessman constantly conniving to defeat his opponents.

But the real star of The Current War is Shannon, who plays the calm and composed Westinghouse with a statesmanlike demeanour. He is, in many ways, the true protagonist of this film. It is delightful to see Shannon – who is also well-known for playing the temperamental antagonist in movies like The Shape of Water and Man of Steel – so naturally depict a mild-mannered, good-natured fellow who doesn’t really want a bitter rivalry with Edison and would much rather prefer a partnership with him.

But The Current War still fails to be the convincing historical drama it ambitiously set out to be because it eventually becomes less about its characters and more of a monotonous account about electricity and corporations, which is full of engineering jargon and never really gets engaging. The rivalry shown in The Current War often reminds one of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, but the difference is that Nolan kept the focus on the psychological effect of the rivalry on the protagonists instead of merely showing how magic shows work.

As a result, despite strong performances by Cumberbatch and Shannon, the movie almost never develops an emotional connection with the viewers because characters only seem to exist as props retelling history while neglecting its impact on their personalities. There are exceptions, like a scene in which Edison has just lost a loved one or another one in which Edison and Westinghouse have a proper one-on-one conversation. But such instances are rare and soon replaced with insipid sequences about which corporation bagged which region in the war of the currents.

Of course, there are also emotionally rich and engaging movies based on reality which have focused more on the real-life events than the characters investigating or involved with them. For instance, it can be argued that Spotlight and The Report were more about child molestation and torture of suspected terrorists respectively than the characters investigating these issues. But such issues directly affecting people are naturally more enthralling than something about an electrical system race. This is something screenwriter Michael Mitnick should have kept in mind while converting his amateur musical (which The Current War started out as) at Yale into a cinematic story.

A still from Th Current War. Twitter

A still from The Current War. Twitter

The Current War can also be incoherent and difficult to understand sometimes, especially the parts about Tesla. You’d wish Hoult had a bigger role in the film, especially since he is an actor who had once shifted the spotlight from Hugh Grant to himself in many scenes – and that too as a child actor – in About a Boy.

Tom Holland’s role as Edison’s assistant Samuel Insull is short and does not gain prominence until late in the film. And the only significant female roles are those of Marguerite Westinghouse (Katherine Waterston) and Mary Edison (Tuppence Middleton), which are again minor and clichéd roles depicting the faithful wife behind the successful man.

Gomez-Rejon’s zany camerawork makes a comeback in the movie and does make it look stunning. Wide-angle shots of city streets about to be radiated with electricity or close-ups of red and yellow light bulbs glowing up on a map certainly add vigour. But there are times when scenes seem to be overstuffed with peculiar shots, perhaps to compensate for the dull content being shown. The Dutch camera angles never have the same effect which similar 90-degree angles had in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

The Current War has been called Oscar-bait and, despite its occasional charms, did perhaps fall prey to the flaws of such a movie. But this is only director (and Martin Scorsese’s protégé) Gomez-Rejon’s third feature film, and he has already directed a phenomenal movie before this one. Expect great things from him in the future.

Updated Date: Nov 01, 2019 11:29:56 IST