TIFF Review: Cumberbatch and Shannon can’t keep ‘The Current War’ from being a bore

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Let me just state this outright: I hate-hate-hate-hated director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s last feature, the putrid 2015 release Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, with every fiber of my being. I would say that it was the worst movie I saw that year, but unfortunately a friend asked me to tag along with them to a screening of Human Centipede 3, and, well, that was garbage. So it was with some hesitation that I went into his latest prestige film, The Current War, at an early afternoon screening at Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF has always been a staging ground for the early battles of the yearly Oscar wars, and Gomez-Rejon, with the backing of the Weinsteins, decided to throw his hat into the ring. Vague title aside (The Current War sounds like a documentary about our misadventures in Afghanistan, though it’s anything but), it’s your standard run-of-the-mill biopic, boring as all get-out, with a few interesting performances speckled throughout to prevent you from snoring loudly in the theater and all of the chaos that will ensue soon after.

The Current War depicts the War of the Currents (see how easy that is?) between the alternating current favored by Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the direct current preferred by all since it won out in the war by George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). If you’re angry with me about spoiling one of the events that founded modern-day electrical usage, the statute of limitations on that spoiler expired before your grandmother was born. Anyways, Edison’s a ruthless dude made even more ruthless by his wife’s untimely death, who patents loads of shit that may or may not have been his idea in the first place and treats his employees like shit, especially a young Serbian-American by the name of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). He’s portrayed as kind of an urbanite, which contrasts heavily with Westinghouse’s give-a-shit mentality about each and every issue — his employees’ lives, the cost of delivering that electricity to the masses — and their battle, spurned on by a slight at a railroad station long, long ago, would take on many forms. They battled in the English language — early in their contest, Edison attempted to call an electrocution a “Westinghouse” — and in the press, as gaggles of reporters hung on each of their words early on. It’s fertile ground for drama, but the script and the direction can never get it off the damn ground.

Cumberbatch is essentially doing his Doctor Strange shtick here, attempting to pass it off as a workable evocation of a figure whose life, prior to the advent of motion pictures, remains largely unfilmed and essentially unknowable. It’s a boring performance, to say the very least, and the few attempts writer Michael Mitnick makes at the script level at complicating his legacy come across as the standard “great man” horseshit that we get frequently served up in the favor of monstrous assholes. You can’t break a few eggs without making an omelet, as goes the saying, and you can’t make the lightbulb without verbally and emotionally abusing a few workers, now can you? Even his legendary betrayal of Tesla goes unevaluated here, with the director and his writer taking Edison’s side, insisting that it was a joke that the Serbian inventor misunderstood. Cumberbatch just is egregiously miscast — his muttering American English rarely works with regards to subtlety (though many of his performances don’t require that anyway) — and you’ve got to wonder what another actor would have done in the role. Even his relationship with Tom Holland, playing his junior assistant, comes across as contrived and vaguely empty, especially when Holland begins to doubt his boss’s purity of spirit over the course of a debacle involving the use of the first electric chair. It’s fertile dramatic material, especially when you’re dealing with a figure as complicated as Edison, but Cumberbatch just glowers and growls.

It should go without saying that Michael Shannon is the standout performer here, wisely underplaying George Westinghouse in spite of all of the exaggeration surrounding him. He’s able to communicate enough emotion at any point with a deadpan, and his overwhelming calmness is fascinating to watch. It’s the exact opposite of his performance in The Shape of Water (which I loved him in), but it’s nearly as satisfying, given that he’s got both an interesting arc and enough ethical issues with the whole fight to sustain the length of a prestige picture like this. His revulsion at getting a P.I. to break into an office is telling enough, but is made stunningly obvious by flashbacks to the subterfuge he had to endure in his service in the Civil War, though Gomez-Rejon never knows how to make those flashbacks work in a satisfying way thematically. His wife, played by Katherine Waterston, is implied to be the brains of the family, and it’s a satisfying relationship to watch even if it’s never explored in depth beyond a few clever one-liners. They’re a nice, if unexpected, pair, and it might be great to see them work together again further down the road, perhaps unencumbered by the claustrophobia of this script. Hoult’s Tesla is fun to watch, but he’s basically just doing the same David Bowie routine that’s defined the master inventor’s presence on the silver screen since The Prestige came out eleven years ago. He pairs well with the Westinghouse clan, though his billiards-based conclusion is a wee bit silly.

Thankfully, The Current War is free of the garish nonsense that so heavily and miserably detained Me and Earl, aside from a few flourishes near the end of the film in which we get to watch how wonderful it is in Chicago at the World’s Fair with the electric lights on. As such, it’s free of style and grace, and one gets the feeling that Gomez-Rejon decided to let the performances guide him on set and in the editing bay. Chung-hoon Chung, the brilliant cinematographer behind the imagery in most of Park-Chan Wook’s best work and the It remake that you and the rest of America saw this weekend or last, is miserably underused here, as the visual palette is as drab and empty as any Tom Hooper film, free of any magic or splendor that might get across to a wired audience the magic of seeing electric light for the first time.

I think that’s my main issue with Gomez-Rejon’s approach to this material — it’s completely free of any and all wonder at what we’re witnessing, portrayed with the passion of a group of overachieving first graders asked to write a skit about this period in history, and it’s up to us to refute that.

Featured image via TIFF. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and recap all our TIFF 2017 coverage here.