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Rivalry of electric pioneers

Even Benedict Cumberbatch can't spark The Current War

Trish Lee

Charlie Masters

trish.lee@newburynews.co.uk

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the current war

The Current War (12A)
Running time 1hr 47min
Rating: **

CINEMA has rarely ‘done’ boffins – most science-themed movies are, in fact, avowedly populist period
melodramas that just happen to revolve around true-life geniuses. 2011’s Creation dwelt upon the private turmoil of Charles Darwin; 2014’s The Imitation Game brought to life the tragedy of Alan Turing, the father of computer science. These movies rarely go unnoticed come awards season (see the barnstorming success of 2016’s Hidden Figures), but one gets the sense that this strange subgenre has largely failed to bring biology, chemistry and physics ‘to the masses’. The Hollywood treatment might even run the risk of cheapening these great men and women, stripping them of all historical significance and reducing them to crude, sanitised caricatures.

In dramatising the rivalry between inventor Thomas Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), The Current War attempts a devilish tightrope
act so many have failed to master. On the one hand, it strives to maintain a straightforward scientific focus without coming off as dry and monotonous, on the other it endeavours to adapt for screen a story that, while not necessarily un-cinematic, is unlikely to resonate with the moviegoing public in the way, say, The Theory of Everything did. In navigating this dilemma, Cumberbatch would appear nothing less than an ace up the director’s sleeve – the man could be compelling reading aloud a volume of Edison’s personal papers and he’s fronted a great many films of this sort. Regrettably, his performance here is one of the most instantly forgettable of his 20-year career and that’s due
in no small part to a muddled, ineffective script. His Edison is locked in a battle with Westinghouse over who should bring the miracle of electricity to Gilded Age America. Unfortunately, this controversy lacks for contemporary relevance and is translated clumsily to the audience, despite an inordinate amount of expository bluster.
Cumberbatch is a quintessential theatre actor, in need of a blast of dramatic voltage if he’s to pull off a lead role successfully – precious little of that voltage is forthcoming here and he instead phones in a careless reprise of his awkwardoid Sherlock/ Imitation Game persona. Shannon is more fun as The Other Guy, possessed of a detached, cool-headed mien that hints at an unseen dark side. He is, in effect, a diet PT Anderson protagonist and carries The Current War through its heftier sections with a degree of competence.

Beyond that, there’s little else of merit here. The film, a long-gestating Weinstein vehicle, premiered in 2017, and it really does feel like something that’s landed a few years past its sell-by date. Though its ‘heroes’ aren’t exactly epitomes of raw machismo, the picture is very masculine, with virtually no time for its female characters. It often seems as if Katherine Waterston’s career has yet to take off in the way it’s supposed to, and her bombastic turn here as Mrs Westinghouse serves as a reminder of her talents; shame then that she’s ill-served by the screenplay. Living as we are in the dying days of hipsterdom, we’ve been spoilt rotten with chocolate-box visions of Victorian life, all wooden stagecoaches, tweed jackets and outrageous moustaches. The Current War’s take on the era is, by comparison, drab, technical and gloomy – it’s undoubtedly the most realistic aspect of the production,
but there’s something very unsatisfying about it, especially given the epic scale of the plot. While the film is hardly among the worst releases of the summer, it’s easily one of the most avoidable.

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