The Current War

Jacob Richardson | 19/03/2020

A stacked cast seems appropriate for this turn of the century battle of industrial titans. 


Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is working on powering cities, under the financial backing of J.P. Morgann (Matthew Macfayden), with his DC current. Meanwhile, George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes AC current is the way to go, but can’t quite get it to work the way he wants. As the two battle it out in their respective workshops, and publicly in the media, in the pursuit of lighting the Chicago World’s Fair, Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) steps in with perhaps the mind necessary to tip the balance of the scales.


The Current War had a myriad of release troubles when it first debuted on the festival circuit. Despite it’s incredible cast, it was largely considered a failure. Following this reaction, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon delayed the release and re-cut the film, and what we get is a perfectly entertaining and serviceable, if unremarkable and ‘unsticky’ film, with bits that work really well and other bits that don’t. 


The first thing to note here is the cast. It really is an incredible ensemble. Leading are the central trio of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult, but in the supporting roles we also have Matthew Macfayden, Katherine Waterston, Tom Holland, and Tuppence Middleton. As you would expect from such a cast, everyone is on peak form - convincing, entertaining and engaging throughout. Cumberbatch in particular has a challenging role - both protagonist and antagonist of the piece. He straddles the two with the ease of a performer of his calibre.


Visually this is also a very engaging piece. Gomez-Rejon plays with light, topical in the extreme given the subject matter of this film, with somewhat of a wanton abandon. There are some beautiful scenes, particularly showing off the magnificence of electric light in this age. 


The issue comes down to the story, and the dramaticism of the piece. This is inherently an intriguing and interesting story - titans of the age, facing off against one another in one of the most well known intellectual battles of all time, with the future of humanity on the line. Gomez-Rejon, however, struggles to pace the film in a manner that gives any structural drama to the film. Perhaps that is down to the huge cast, the frequent appearances of well-known side characters (J.P. Morgan for example), or the lack of any inherent risk of not winning. Or perhaps it is down to the Edison himself - in this battle, he historically has been shown to be in the wrong, but Gomez-Rejon either can’t or won’t risk showing him as an irredeemable villain, which makes it hard to root for either of the two competing parties and ultimately means the film loses some of its bite.


The Current War sparks intrigue undoubtedly, but one wishes it shone a little brighter.