fri 18/10/2019

The Current War review – lacks the spark of invention | reviews, news & interviews

The Current War review – lacks the spark of invention

The Current War review – lacks the spark of invention

Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon in the battle to light up America

Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, a man who will do anything to have his name in lights.

We like to think of scientists and inventors as innocent dreamers, trampled upon by the cruel old world. Of course, that’s not wholly true. Just look at today’s tech and social media industries. In fact the man cited as America’s greatest ever inventor, Thomas Edison, was a real scoundrel who wasn’t adverse to using dirty tricks to get ahead.

The Current War is named after the infamous battle of wits in the US in the 1880s, between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the entrepreneur George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), over who would provide electricity to illuminate and ultimately power the country – and change the world. And rather than the joy of discovery, it concerns itself with the cutthroat machinations that often follow that "eureka" moment.

The film has had a difficult history, opening to poor reviews at the Toronto Film Festival two years ago, just before the public disgrace of its producer Harvey Weinstein. It’s finally been dusted off, with a new edit by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon that shouldn’t be dismissed outright.

Driven by an intelligent script and agreeable cast, it’s a fascinating, beautifully designed film, which evokes arguably the most inventive decade in history, while reflecting on the varying motivations – ego, money, philanthropy, visionary instinct – that drove progress. The opening scene establishes the showman Edison’s modus operandi (as well as the director’s visual intent). A train stops in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night. A group of businessmen disembark and start walking through the dark and mud, until suddenly a field of lightbulbs sparks magically into life. 

With the deep pockets of his benefactor JP Morgan (Matthew McFadyen), Edison feels that he’s in the driving seat for the introduction of this new-fangled thing called electricity. But along comes Westinghouse with a cheaper and more efficient solution, literally the AC to Edison’s DC. The genial businessman wants to partner up; not only does Edison refuse, but en route to their showdown at the Chicago World’s Fair he will use appalling smear tactics in an attempt to destroy his rival.  

If you want to cast a genius or maverick with questionable people skills, then Cumberbatch – with the likes of Alan Turing, Julian Assange and Sherlock Holmes in his back pocket – is your man. Or is he? Though Cumberbatch is as skilled as ever here, that particular schtick is wearing thin. 

Shannon is more interestingly cast against type as Westinghouse, a man as determinedly decent and dull as Edison is charismatically self-serving. Nicholas Hoult (pictured above) offers nimble support as Nikola Tesla – the visionary émigré who sides with Westinghouse and whose penury never gets in the way of a good suit – and Katherine Waterstone shows Marguerite Westinghouse to be the formidable equal to her husband. 

Gomez-Rejon boisterously uses an array of camera tricks – zooms, swooning crane shots, jump-cuts – to capture the excitement felt at this most creative of times. But what he fatally fails to conjure, until it’s too late, is the thrill of invention itself. In that sense, this lacks the dramatic spark of Cumberbatch’s Turing saga, and far superior The Imitation Game.

If you want to cast a genius or maverick with questionable people skills, then Cumberbatch is your man

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.