The Current War had a troubled upbringing. Post production, the film segued into a lukewarm reception at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2017. Upon its release, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon said: “I knew in my heart, and every fibre of my body was saying, it’s not ready.” Despite the director having an extra eighteen months to shape his project, the film then suffered hugely from its connection to The Weinstein Company. Indeed, that’s why this awards-friendly vehicle has struggled for the hum of publicity.
Having waited on the shelf for so long, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the film recounts the birth of electricity with an aggressive alacrity. Flitting between the geniuses of Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch), George Westinghouse (Shannon) and Nikola Tesla (Hoult), its perennial restlessness undoes the good ideas and interesting performances which occasionally flicker on screen.
The film frames itself as a fight for the future, with Edison and Westinghouse vying for not just business, but a chance to change the world. The choice between the pair is superficially technological – either Edison’s direct current or Westinghouse’s alternating – but it quickly becomes a battle of ideologies too. Though the pair are fighting for business, and to light up the whole of America, it melds into a personal fight too.
Cumberbatch’s Edison is intriguing. In the spectrum of his character, he slides from a playful family-man to an aggressive egotist pulsating with hubris. This slide is linked to two growing tragedies, one personal and one professional.
What the film does pointedly is to fuse these two worlds together; Work becomes achingly personal and we’re shown glimpses of the ruthlessness which characterised Edison’s life. To this end, Cumberbatch is really quite excellent, channeling the same burning intellectualism of Alan Turing and Sherlock Holmes through the knowing grin of a showman, even if the audience is saved somewhat from Edison’s sharpest edges.
Meanwhile, Westinghouse is composed as Edison’s counterpoint. The man who works out of altruism, not egotism. Michael Shannon broods and muses to good affect, but the script seems less interested in his achievements. Perhaps ironically, the story chases the magnetism and actions of Edison, even if Westinghouse ‘achieved’ more. In a script which leans heavily into a ‘Great Man’ view of history, it pines after the dangerous allure of Edison.
This is perhaps The Current War’s biggest issue. Its script excitedly leaps across time and space with little pause of thought and is often disproportionately pulled into Edison’s narrative. Equally, it’s dealing with a long list of heady themes but doesn’t quite know how to unpack them. The closest it comes to doing so is in the aftermath of the undeniably exhilarating finale, where the two men are given a final chance to face-off.
Away from the heat of the rivalry, the rest of the ensemble perform well. To the film’s credit, the ‘wives’ aren’t inherently decorous, with both Tuppence Middleton and Katherine Waterston giving vibrant performances. Indeed, both Mary Edison and Marguerite Erskine are more than sounding boards, thereby motivating and challenging their husbands throughout.
Less pleasing is the film’s use of Nikola Tesla. Nicholas Hoult brings a playful eccentricity to a film which would otherwise be solidly down-the-line, but he doesn’t have a great deal to play with. Unlike The Prestige, which gave an eerily excellent David Bowie a suitably bizarre sub-plot in which to live, The Current War’s Tesla feels out of place. Perhaps that’s the point, but I’m unsure whether the film could be that knowingly arch.
Despite the superficial trappings of a period drama, The Current War is desperate to showcase its modernity, in both tone and performance. This doesn’t work at every turn, but there’s enough of a spark within the performances, not to mention within the narrative itself, to keep you engaged.