Flick a switch and on comes the light, the TV, any electrical item you care to name. We don’t give it a second thought, take it for granted even, but in 1860 it wasn’t much more than a glimmer in an engineer’s eye. What lighting there was came from gaslight or candles, the brakes on the trains were powered by steam and regarded as technological advancements. Electricity? That was the subject of a cut-throat battle.
And it’s that competition, the one to decide who would control the flow of electricity in 19th century America, that’s the subject of The Current War. It’s a film that’s fought a battle of its own to get here in its present form, after an initial screening at Toronto in 2017 which received a less than rapturous reception. A Weinstein Company property, it was shelved after the scandal broke and plans for a release later that year were cancelled. This gave director Alfonso Gomez the opportunity to re-edit the film, adding scenes, cutting the running time and that’s the version we’ve got now, an insightful biographical drama about how Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) found himself up against George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) in the fight to control the USA’s electricity supply.
Not the most mouthwatering of subjects for a movie and, in all honesty, the deliberate pun in the title doesn’t help in terms of taking it seriously. Yet take it seriously we should, because Gomez has managed to salvage a film that confounds our expectations and, while it demands a certain effort from its audience, they’re not at risk of feeling short changed. On the face of it, this looks like a traditional, slightly stuffy historical drama, but it skilfully incorporates the style of a thriller into the narrative. That ticking clock motif is never far away. It’s also beautifully photographed, with a sludgy colour palette that emphasises the lack of interior light at the time and creates an almost brooding atmosphere. In fact, it only sticks with convention when the inevitable meeting between the two protagonists, Edison and Westinghouse, takes place.
Even though it keeps its science to the minimum, the film can be hard work at times, with the plot moving backwards and forwards between the two main characters and the additional involvement of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) who worked for Edison at the time but was also to become personally involved in the drive to power the nation. He plays a lesser role, which has subsequently caused some debate, and Hoult’s performance is toned down so there are times when he almost feels superfluous. The rest of the cast is superior to the point of giving off an aroma of awards bait – alongside Cumberbatch and Shannon, there’s Tom Holland, Matthew Macfadyen, Katherine Waterston as well as Hoult – but Cumberbatch’s performance gives away that the film has taken its time to reach cinemas. Not that it’s his fault. It was made several years ago, at a time when he hadn’t quite cornered the market in playing difficult geniuses. But since then he has and there’s the sense that we’ve seen this all before.
The Current War may not have all its battles behind it. Its box office appeal, particularly for summer audiences, is questionable and the combination of Cumberbatch with Holland in a supporting role (and out of his Spidey costume) may not do enough to strengthen it. It’s a film that could easily slip into cinemas and then slip out again the following week and that would be a loss. For cinema fans, it comes with built-in curiosity value, but it also has more than enough to make it worth the effort of watching it.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Biography, History, Drama | Cert:12A| UK, 26 July (2019) | Entertainment Film | Dir. Alfonso Gomez | Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Matthew Macfadyen, Katherine Waterston.