Full disclosure, I’m a card carrying member of the “Cumber-Collective”. As such, The Current War has been on my most anticipated list for a number of years… more on this later. The period drama combines all the joys of internet fandom with the potential glitz of an awards season release. Will the movie live up to the hype?
The Current War follows the well discussed tension between legendary inventors Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) in the lead up to the creation of electric power. Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland and Katherine Waterston co-Star. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directs the film from a script by Michael Mitnick.
The Current War has been essentially cursed, missing its initial release date in 2017 after the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and parent company The Weinstein Company. The obstacles have came one after the next and after two years of distribution lingo, it is just now hitting theaters with the dubious classification of being called a “Directors Cut”.
On paper, this movie is absolutely loaded with potential. However, as everything takes shape, The Current War proves to be a painful example of style over substance. Gomez-Rejon’s direction feels completely out of place in this feature. The canted angles and constantly mobile shaky cam has the look of an excited film student, blessed with a big budget. There’s all kinds of flourishes. Canted angles. The camera never stops moving, and to make matters worse, the filmmaker seems vitally opposed to steady cameras. Gomez-Rejon makes a definite creative choice in this directors cut, and it really doesn’t pay off. His shooting style is overpowering and completely overwhelms the relatively sedate subject matter of this period piece.
Ultimately, this heavy handed direction is not needed. The film brings together some of the best —and most popular— actors working today. The talent alone between Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon should spell immediate success for The Current War. Both men are given interesting storylines to explore, particularly Edison’s struggles around the death of his wife. These actors could both shine. However, they aren’t given room to perform through the migraine inducing camera work and the lightening fast editing. A note to these filmmakers, trust your performers.
The Current War finds another uphill battle in the Mitnick script. Now, this review won’t touch on the historical aspects— I’m not an expert on this part of the Gilded Age and I’m not going to pretend I am. The story drops right into the action, and unfortunately for the type of story the script is trying to tell, it is about half an hour too short. Character development is largely absent, setting the stage with abrupt inter-titles telling us who the characters are. While this might work with someone like Edison who carved himself out a definite place in the pop culture memory, it is more complicated when looking at a somewhat more obscure figure like Westinghouse. When looking at characters like Insull— played by Tom Holland, the audience is purely reliant on the strength of the performances to define who this man is.
Furthermore, the script loses the scope of the story in its execution. The narrative is rigidly structured, splitting the focus on the story in two parts. For the first half, the spotlight falls squarely on Edison, leaving Westinghouse waving listlessly in the wind. In the second act, the focus flips back to Westinghouse. In handling the subject matter like this, neither man is truly allowed to shine.
Finally, the film struggles to allow supporting characters to stand out, despite seeing some really interesting groundwork being laid in the construction.
The first is Tesla- played by Hoult. The man is a fascinating figure in the popular culture memory — and well worthy of his own movie— however, despite setting up his story and Hoult giving a vibrant performance, he’s virtually ignored by the narrative.
The same is true with Marguerite Westinghouse – played by Waterston. There’s an inherent strength and power to her performance, which I would hypothesize has its roots in history. To make things even more interesting, Shannon seems to be playing off this. Their dynamic as a couple is very swayed by her in the active, more dynamic role. Despite all of this, she is virtually ignored in the narrative. I’m not even sure her name is mentioned outside her initial title card. These inconsistencies between the characters and the filmmakers are glaring and ends up feeling like there’s a lack of communication somewhere. Was there so much left on the cutting room floor of this directors cut?
Ultimately, The Current War finds itself a victim of expectations. Everything on paper should see this film be a rousing success. However, in stylistic choices made behind the camera and a convoluted script overwhelm the action on screen. Benedict Cumberbatch fans like myself might find enough to appreciate in this one, but beyond that I’d say save this one for streaming.
The Current War “Directors Cut” is now playing in theaters around the country.
Stay tuned for more here at Female Gaze Productions as we look at classic pop culture through a historical and feminist lens. My name is Kim, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at Kpierce624, and as always if you’re like what you’re seeing, please like and subscribe.