Arts

Electricity-age historical yarn The Current War will leave audiences in the dark

Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is locked in a fierce battle of wits with entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) in the electricity-themed historical drama The Current War. Damon Smith watches...

Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse and Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison in The Current War
Damon Smith

THE CURRENT WAR (12A, 108 mins) Drama/Romance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Macfadyen. Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

LET there be light! Sadly, there is only gloom in director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's turgid period drama, which promises to illuminate the hard-fought battle of words and copper wires between Thomas Edison and entrepreneur George Westinghouse in the late 19th-century.

The two men publicly disagreed about the best electrical system to usher America out of the gas-powered age – Edison advocated direct current while Westinghouse tethered his hopes to alternating current.

The verbal rat-a-tat between two industry titans lit a fuse on the Technological Revolution.

Michael Mitnick's script leaves us in the dark about the pivotal role played by maverick Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla and there are few sparks from leading men Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon.

Texan filmmaker Gomez-Rejon, who previously made the quirky romantic comedy Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, is determined to energise this laboured history lesson with flashy camerawork.

His showmanship behind the lens is particularly distracting in the film's opening 20 minutes, when we should be getting to know characters rather than suffering a mild bout of dizziness from the technical trickery.

The year is 1880 and Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) is poised to light up a section of New York with his electrical system, aided by personal secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holland).

The grand unveiling is a rousing success.

Principal investor JP Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) looks forward to reaping the rewards of Edison's excellence while newspaper reporters hang on the quixotic inventor's every utterance.

Edison's reliance on direct current makes it both expensive and labour-intensive to convey current over long distances and businessman George Westinghouse (Shannon) senses an opportunity.

He believes that an alternating current system could be cheaper and more efficient.

"I really don't think it can be done... because [Edison] would have already done it," an assistant tells Westinghouse.

The two men trade verbal blows as their respective businesses duel for supremacy and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) joins Edison's team of bright young things.

As Edison loses ground on Westinghouse, he takes a calculated decision to link alternating current with the first electric chair, connecting his rival in the public's mind with the "barbaric" practice of taking a human life.

Originally scheduled for release in 2017 before The Weinstein Company filed for bankruptcy, The Current War fights a losing battle from those eye-catching opening frames.

Cumberbatch and Shannon are powerless to plug us into their flawed, emotionally complex characters and Tuppence Middleton and Katherine Waterston are largely wasted as Edison and Westinghouse's supportive spouses.

Period detail is solid, enhanced with costumes and make-up including a fine set of mutton chops for Holland, who comes back down to earth with a thud after his gravity-defying heroics this summer as Spider-Man.

Rating: 5/10

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