Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon follows his acclaimed 2015 debut Me and Earl and the Dying Girl with this engaging drama based on the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over rival electricity systems. If it seems like the film has been in the pipeline for a while, that's because it was a casualty of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, though it has since been reshot and re-edited to the director's apparent satisfaction.
Set in the 1880s, the film omits the actual discovery of electricity and begins with Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and rival Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) competing to promote parallel systems, Edison favouring Direct Current (DC) and Westinghouse pushing his Alternating Current (AC). Along the way there are diversions, such as the government deciding they want to use electricity for a form of capital punishment (which Edison sees as a way to demonise the opposition) and a race to secure the contract to illuminate the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Cumberbatch and Shannon are both excellent in the lead roles. Cumberbatch can do mercurial, grumpy genius in his sleep, but he puts the effort in here, making Edison flawed and difficult but nonetheless sympathetic, even when engaging in dirty tricks. Shannon, if anything, underplays it as Westinghouse, seemingly driven as much by a fairly brutal snub from Edison (the scene itself is crushing) as by a desire for fame and fortune. Unfortunately, however, the film denies the audience the opportunity to see the two actors spark off each other, as they only appear on screen together once.
The supporting cast are equally good, particularly Katherine Waterston, who takes what could have been a clichéd role as Westinghouse's wife and milks it for all it's worth. Similarly, Tom Holland is good value as Edison's loyal secretary-slash-conscience Samuel Insull, while Nicholas Hoult is an intriguing presence as enigmatic Serbian genius Nikola Tesla, but the film doesn't really know what to do with him and it feels like several of his scenes were ultimately cut.
The script, by Michael Mitnick, gets the basic job done, but it could perhaps have used a little more focus, even if some of the diversions give rise to the film's best scenes, such as Edison trying to persuade the press to use Westinghouse as a verb to mean electrocute to death - “Now please watch while I Westinghouse this horse!” Similarly, the script never quite makes the desired emotional connection, despite having a ready-made tragedy in the early death of Edison's wife (an under-used Tuppence Middleton).
The film's biggest problem is that it's ridiculously over-directed in places, opting for wobbly hand-held camerawork in scenes that don't call for it and frequently using bizarre angles that end up being distracting rather than stylish or interesting or whatever Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung were going for. That said, the film looks gorgeous throughout, with the camerawork and production design painting a convincing portrait of 1880s America.
In short, The Current War is consistently interesting and superbly acted, but the direction is often distracting and you can't help feeling it might have benefited from a more traditional biopic approach.