What’s this, you ask? Why is she reviewing a movie that premiered in 2017? A couple of years ago this star studded historical biopic was poised to make a heavy hitting awards season run after debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, but then something happened. Harvey Weinstein happened. Originally snapped up for distribution by The Weinstein Company, The Current War was shelved in the aftermath of the countless revelations and subsequent business crisis. Cut to two years later and the film is finally making its way to the big screen courtesy of Lantern Entertainment. Would it be worth the wait?
To put it simply, no. Set amidst the ambitious, American Dream seeking backdrop of the later 1800s, The Current War, as the name suggests, tells the story of the ‘war of the currents’ between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). Racing to be the dominant and responsible names in lighting up the world, the film tracks the characters in their different and opposing approaches to electricity, with genius minds not only making huge breakthroughs in physics but also engaging in political warfare in order to come out on top.
Here’s the thing. There isn’t a single person in the world who hasn’t benefitted from the discoveries and inventions of the characters in play on screen, but sadly The Current War just isn’t able to harness the kind of raw electricity that is so abundant within its narrative. At a surprisingly snippy one hour fifty minutes for a historical biopic, the film still feels overlong and dragging, and ironically, never really provides that lively spark to being the thing to life.
With reports of rewrites, reedits and various other kinds of ‘redoings’ in the course of its production, the film feels very much like a slightly messy, overcrowded template of what a good version of the story could have been. There are little glimmers of interest and intrigue across the story, especially in a technical sense, but the final package can’t help but come across as a little dull dramatically.
What I wanted from The Current War was something close to There Will Be Blood, but perhaps my expectations were unfairly high considering the 2007 Paul Thomas Anderson epic is a modern masterpiece. At the very least, I wanted the film to make just as interested in electricity as Daniel Day Lewis made me about oil, but to be honest it never even gets close.
In terms of the cast list, you’d be hard pushed to find a more stellar line up this year, which makes the overall failure of the picture even more frustrating. As Thomas Edison, Benedict Cumberbatch is very much in his wheelhouse as an oddball, anti social genius. One can recognise hints of both Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Strange in his characterisation, overwhelming arrogance with just that little touch of vulnerability that makes the majority of Cumberbatch’s performances enjoyable to watch. There is nothing to really test the actor in this role, but he performs it with aplomb nonetheless.
The enigmatic Michael Shannon perhaps has the more interesting work to do as rival George Westinghouse. Perhaps with the benefit of playing the less ‘famous’ of the two, Shannon brings a lot more nuance to his character, portraying a man with more layers than Cumberbatch’s Edison reveals. There is less bravado and cocksureness in Westinghouse, and one thing I will give credit to the film for is repeatedly and successfully turning the tables on the audience with respect to who exactly they should be backing in this electricity race. In a very Mary Queen Of Scots-esque fashion, the two leading actors share only a single scene in the picture, but I can’t say that is builds to even half as effective a crescendo as that scene between Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan.
Nicholas Hoult is both underrated and underused in the role of Nikola Tesla. It feels very much like the film doesn’t quite know what to do with this third member of the ‘war’, and as a result who could have been one of the most charismatic performances of the film is left to annoyingly sparing moments here and there. The same could be said for the likes of Tom Holland and Katherine Waterston, both of whom make a positive impact with the little time that they have.
Overall, The Current War is a historical drama that never really lives up to the interest and significance of the story that it is trying to tell. For a period in world history that literally changed everything about the world, you certainly don’t leave the cinema with a sense of soaring achievement or pride in human accomplishment. A film that boasts such an amazing cast list and solid performances can’t ever be labelled as truly ‘bad’, but equally, when shreds of good acting are the only thing you have to cling to, you know something has gone wrong on a wider scale.
4 thoughts on “The Current War (2017)”
I was so excited to see this since 2017 and now that I hear people’s reactions of being underwhelmed by the film, I’m a bit nervous.
There is a book called The Last Days of Night which is about the same topic and a film adaptation was planned with Eddie Redmayne as the lawyer caught between Edison and Westinghouse. I do hope that film gets made and I wonder how it will compare with this.
I really need to properly read more of your work; it is really good!
Regardless, I completely agree. This film – for all its surprisingly neat cinematography and potential for insight – is an unpolished mess. A coalition of scenes haphazardly sewn together like Frankenstein’s Monster, never finding a voice of its own. I didn’t hate it: but it falls flat. It’s just…. passionless. And at least the very worst movies often have some passion within them.
Thanks Ethan, really appreciate it!
No worries: all writing takes time and effort, and those who are really good deserve to be commended for it!