The Current War Cert: 12A, 1hr 47mins
Any film that suffers a near two-year gap between its first screening and full commercial release will inevitably be viewed with suspicion. But in the case of The Current War we must keep an open mind, because shortly after it was shown at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, one of its former producers, Harvey Weinstein, was engulfed in scandal, leaving the film’s future ownership and distribution prospects in doubt.
But 22 months later and with both issues now resolved, here it finally is. So has it been worth the wait? The answer, especially in the dog days of summer when we have to be grateful for anything with ambition, has to be yes.
This, after all, is a serious film about a serious subject – the race to harness electricity for commercial profit – and me, I love a bit of science with my cinema.
Michael Mitnick’s screenplay charts the heavyweight battle to bring electric light and power to America with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Thomas Edison (above)
But at the same time, the production – directed by the Texas-born Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who made the endearingly eccentric Me And Earl And The Dying Girl in 2015 – never quite sets the world a-sizzle, never quite finds a compelling, high-voltage way through its complex and scientifically challenging story.
Remember those physics lessons about the difference between alternating and direct current? Well, this is the film that makes you wish you were paying more attention.
Set in America during the last 20 years of the 19th century, Michael Mitnick’s screenplay charts the heavyweight battle to bring electric light and power to America.
In one corner we have the great inventor and electrical pioneer Thomas Edison, while in the other is George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, above with Katherine Waterston)
In one corner we have the great inventor and electrical pioneer Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), champion of direct current, while in the other is George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), the industrialist and engineer who doesn’t know much about electricity himself but sees its enormous potential and is pretty sure that alternating current – which with its higher voltage could be transmitted longer distances – is the way to go.
Somewhere in between is the Serbian genius and dandy Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), whose presence is being vigorously but puzzlingly promoted by the film’s marketing department but who disappears from the action for long periods.
Just as he was in real life, the unfortunate Tesla is the film’s forgotten man.
Somewhere in between is the Serbian genius and dandy Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), whose presence is being vigorously but puzzlingly promoted by the film’s marketing department
The story – ‘inspired’ by true events, according to an opening caption – is attractively counter-intuitive, with Edison, the man remembered by history, slowly emerging as a distinctly less noble character than we perhaps imagined, while the reputation of Westinghouse, the man remembered in business circles (and whose name was given to a US brand of domestic appliances), travels in the opposite direction, helped by Shannon’s characteristically intense but undeniably charismatic performance.
Not only is Edison too much the volatile maverick to stop his private train (oh, how one longs for a private train) for dinner with Westinghouse, he then goes on to blacken his rival’s reputation by telling journalists that alternating current is potentially lethal.
Which, this being an American story, leads us swiftly – but for rather too long – to the development of the electric chair.
IT’S A FACT
Apart from electricity, Edison left another legacy: the dazzling career of Edson ‘Pele’ do Nascimento, named after the inventor.
Shannon’s is certainly the pick of the male performances, while Fantastic Beasts star Katherine Waterston adds a certain spark as Westinghouse’s insightful and supportive wife.
But for such an American story, it’s a surprise to see so many British actors in the supporting cast (Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Holland and Tuppence Middleton among others) and, although thanks to clever visual effects it takes a little time to realise it, so many British locations being used too.
That said, full marks to the location researcher who found Cragside, which here plays the role of the grand Westinghouse stately pile. In real life it is the Northumberland country house owned by William Armstrong (a 19th-century British industrialist much in the Westinghouse mould) that in 1880 became the first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electric power.
Oh, that’s clever.
Despite the enjoyably rough treatment it dishes out to red-nosed bankers and its obvious playing to the gallery – ‘There will never be anything called Tesla ever again!’ – this is a film that always interests but never quite enthrals.
Higher voltage needed.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love (12A)
When Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, they fell in love, swam naked in the sea, took a lot of drugs and became a couple, with the lovely Marianne playing muse to Cohen’s tortured artist.
When Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, they fell in love, swam naked in the sea, took a lot of drugs and became a couple
More than 50 years later, when she lay dying in an Oslo hospital, Cohen sent her a heartbreaking note of farewell. Nick Broomfield’s poignant but overlong documentary left me with two thoughts – that the drugs really don’t work and that old age is not for cissies.
Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans (PG)
It’s 26 years since Terry Deary wrote the first Horrible Histories book, since when the hugely popular franchise has expanded into TV, magazines and film.
Rotten Romans, in which a game Derek Jacobi reprises his iconic role as Emperor Claudius, is fresh, clever and funny.
Atti (Sebastian Croft) a young, inventive but not terribly worldly Roman, is banished to Britain where he is captured by Orla (Emilia Jones), an equally young Celt who dreams of being a female warrior just like Boudicca (pop star Kate Nash).
Rotten Romans is fresh, clever and funny with Craig Roberts and Kim Cattrall (above) catching the eye as Nero and Agrippina
Only her father (Nick Frost) won’t let her have a sword. With Craig Roberts and Kim Cattrall catching the eye as Nero and Agrippina, it’s a solid IV stars from me.