The Current War
Director – Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Cast – Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Macfadyen, Katherine Waterstone
The acne on Tom Holland’s face gives an indication of just how badly The Current War has been delayed.
But to discuss this film in any meaningful way, it is important to first establish some context. The Current War was shot back in 2016, and was one of the last casualties in the collapse of The Weinstein Company. Dissatisfied with the rushed cut that he was forced to screen at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival by Harvey Weinstein, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was afforded a rare second chance to fix his film in the most unfortunate of circumstances. When the studio and its assets were sold off after the #MeToo movement, Gomez-Rejon’s illustrious producers capitalised on some nifty legal paperwork and stalled the release of the poorly reviewed cut.
Timur Bekmambetov pooled in personal cash to facilitate all-important reshoots, but more importantly, Martin Scorsese invoked a clause in his contract that gave him final cut on the movie, thereby securing for Gomez-Rejon the time he needed to finalise his version. In a recent interview, the filmmaker, who previously directed the absolutely terrific Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, said that he understands how lucky he was to get a second bite at the cherry, and somewhat tellingly for the times we live in, how relieved he is to have a fresh page on Rotten Tomatoes.
Watch the Current War trailer here
To those of you that were neither aware nor interested in this piece of trivia, the sheer miracle that The Current War has turned out not only to be salvageable, but in fact rather enjoyable, will be absolutely meaningless. But in an industry that routinely curbs the artistry of fine filmmakers in favour of multiplex-friendly ‘content’, the success story of The Current War deserves to be celebrated.
It is a solidly crafted period drama, about the battle of wits and (in an ironic example of life imitating art) legal chicanery, between maverick inventors Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, as they locked horns in a fight to determine whose electrical system would power the world. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the eccentric Edison, while Michael Shannon is the clinical businessman Westinghouse.
They might not share many scenes, but they certainly share an interesting dynamic. Neither is antagonistic towards the other, but instead involved in something that plays out like a gentleman’s duel. It’s all for the greater good, they seem to have decided, but that doesn’t prevent either of them from pulling the occasional low blow and winding up the press about each other.
Benedict Cumberbatch in a still from The Current War.
Neither are they above petty moves like patenting basic things like corkscrews, for no other reason than to force the other person to come up with an alternative or face a lawsuit. When Edison has his assistant (played by Tom Holland) tell a panel of judges that Westinghouse’s electricity might prove to be deadly, the assistant can’t help but blurt out that all electricity beyond a certain limit is dangerous. “Even yours?” asks the naive judge, tasked with handling the future of humanity.
Even back then, when the concept of a world without gaslight and fire was first floated, all that the rich and powerful could think of was ways in which to weaponise electricity. But Edison was adamant about not having a hand in creating something that could take a life.
It was this ‘decency’ in fact that prevented him on multiple occasions from pulling ahead of Westinghouse, who, on the other hand, was the sort of person that lived by a golden rule: ‘The world runs on currency, not current’.
Michael Shannon in a still from The Current War.
And Michael Shannon is dependably distant in the role, driven by a single-minded entrepreneurial spirit that set the benchmark for American industrialists for years to come. But Cumberbatch, unfortunately, is rather uneven as Edison. A character that should have, ideally, been a sort of cousin to his Sherlock Holmes — Edison in this film is also a high-functioning sociopath — often turns into a calculating, egotistical grouch, much like Dr Stephen Strange (pre-accident).
But Gomez-Rejon gives his new cut such a propulsive boost in the backside, that it is quite difficult to linger on distractions such as Cumberbatch’s generic American accent. There is a vibrant visual style to this film that is no doubt meant to echo the forward-looking spirit of its two protagonists. Reuniting with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Gomez-Rejon pulls off some truly splashy visual feats, brimming with kinetic camerawork, dynamic angles, and impromptu split-screens.
The Current War could have so easily remained the collateral damage that it was destined to be, discarded on shelves or relegated to streaming perhaps, and even though the final product might not have the spark you’d expect, it’s an uncommonly light-footed period drama.