PICTURE ALL THE ingredients for a fabulously good yarn: a great historical feud, complicated theories to explain, the sexy philosophical potency of the electric chair, complex social conditions and the unsophisticated medical savvy of the 19th century. There’s even a spot of Morse Code jokes in the mix, to say nothing of beautiful period costumes and buildings. The Current War, which aims to tell the story of the electricity race between American inventors George Westinghouse and Thomas Alva Edison, on paper, has everything, but on the silver screen it’s a rambling morass of snippets without context that lead you to follow so many red herrings that there’s little left for you to take home, by way of the enormity of the series of events.
Also, the work, along the lines of The Favourite – the recent Queen Anne biopic – contains is a great fascination with the technology of filming. So much fascination, in fact that it flattens the story almost completely, from the first frame. There are all manner of tricks and sleights of lens to bamboozle you and draw your attention from the story, which it does. It’s like a graphic designer exploiting the whole gamut of fonts in one wedding invitation: it’s more about the designer’s fascination for what he can do, than the work itself.
From the get go, this work feels more like a foray into a surrealist film idiom than much else. It opens to an almost beautiful, but stultifyingly precious moment of a bloke in a snowy landscape. He’s looking earnest and staring into space. Yet nothing is really happening. Or nothing you can see. Then, a prompt points you back some years in time to indicate a sequence of events. Albeit a meaningless one. It’s like something Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel may have coined before the birth of film proper.
And that’s how the text unfolds. Taking such broad and far-paced steps through Edison’s career, it tends to gloss over the explanatory bits and leave you in the cold, most of the time, rather than sweeping you away on the issues evoked. You leave with as much of an understanding of electricity as what you came in with, to say nothing of Edison himself (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), for that matter.
Edison is represented as a clichéd absent-minded inventor, with a patent lack of understanding of people but a sense of mischief that’s almost rude. His corollary Westinghouse is painted as the bad guy of the tale, out to undercut the more refined and financially thwarted Edison at every turn. The story is one sided and swimming in platitudes that hurt rather than harm its narrative dignity.
In short, this is how not to tell a story. If you think of films such as Kenneth Lonergan’s astonishing Manchester by the Sea (2016), in which a complicated story line is given credence with succinctness and wisdom, leaving you shocked at its impact and crying at the things left unsaid, you have some kind of a grasp of the limits of The Current War. The film’s preoccupation with creating something pretty and electrifying, neglecting the basic nuts and bolts of proper narrative writing, smother this work utterly, leaving you feeling cheated.
- The Current War is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and features a cast headed by Sophia Ally, Robert-Anthony Artlett, Jed Aukin, Joseph Balderrama, Jay William Whittington Barrette, Tom Bell, Donovan Blackwood, Fares Boulos, Giacomo Joshua Brunelli, Steve Carroll, James Chalmers, Michael Cobb, Andy Cockell, Simon Connolly, Craig Conway, Nancy Crane, Benedict Cumberbatch, Steven I Dillard, Marc Esse, Evy Frearson, Jesús Gallo, Greg Haiste, David Morley Hale, Oscar Heron, Phil Hodes, Tom Holland, Sam Hollobon, Nicholas Hoult, Will Irvine, Thor Janke, Celyn Jones, John Kinory, Simon Kunz, Adam Lazarus, Matthew Macfadyen, Conor MacNeill, Simon Manyonda, Saul Marron, Ben Mars, Amy Marston, Jason Matthewson, Martyn Mayger, Iain McKee, Christopher McMullen, Tuppence Middleton, Kevin Millington, Damien Molony, Catherine Monfils, Woody Norman, Andrew Okello, Jeremy Oliver, Faye Ormston, Adam Pearce, Katy Poulter, Oliver Powell, Liza Ross, Ekow Quartey, Mark Ryder, Abigail Sakari, Benjamin Schnau, John Schwab, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Michael Shannon, Janette Sharpe, Tim Steed, Colin Stinton, Tom Sweet, Roderick Swift, Katherine Waterston, Nigel Wilcock, Toby Williams and Michael Yates. Produced by Timur Beckmambetov and Basil Iwanyk, it is written by Michael Mitnick and features creative input by Danny Bensi, Volker Bertelmann, Saunder Jurriaans and Dustin O’Halloran (music), Chung-hoon Chung (cinematography), Justin Krohn and David Trachtenberg (editing), Ellen Lewis and Theo Park (casting), Jan Roelfs (production design), Lucy Eyre (set) and Michael Wilkinson (costumes). Release date: July 25 2019.