By Leah Martindale, Film & TV Editor
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s star-studded film about the power struggle over powering our homes is finally coming to cinemas, but its cinematography struggles to live up to the hype.
A Serbian inventor, black reporter and English assistant walk into an 1880s middle-America bar. It’s candlelit, although not for long. The Current War (2017) is the shockingly - pun intended - engaging story of Edison, Tesla, and relative unknown George Westinghouse’s race to electrically illuminate the world.
When my flatmate, Film and TV Editor predecessor, and fellow film buff Patrick and I entered the cinema we had a checklist of cliched cinema tropes we expected to see. Flickering red and white lights as the overworked Edison toiled over an electronic switchboard, front-lit shots of hard working engineers, the camera panning back as the magic finally happens. If only we’d had the good sense to bet on it.
I entered The Current War expecting a dry, technical, story intercut with exciting shots and beautiful cinematography. I was proven wrong in equal parts exciting and disappointing aspects, as the film brought tears to my eyes and guttural, characteristic cackles from the second row where we found ourselves sat, but also exclamations of confusion and annoyance with the frankly, mystifying camera choices at times.
Shot with dizzying, seasick motion, reminiscent of the hangover-tummy-inducing handheld Project Almanac (2015), with an overindulgent soft-focus, the film’s high production value is undercut by the amateurish camera work. Jaunty angles, a colour palette right out of War Horse (2011) and the tonally discordant petering out of any cinematic experimentation right when the film explodes, quite literally, into the future, make for a confusing watch at best.
I was proven wrong in equal parts exciting and disappointing aspects.
With a cyclical opening and closing shot reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Wes Anderson-esque utilisation of screen space, the cinematography was not all disappointment. The unique 21:9 aspect ratio afforded the Director of Photography Chung-hoon Chung a rare opportunity in a period drama for breathtaking stills and innovative visual character isolation.
The film features a star-studded cast, with the Marvel major players Benedict Cumberbatch as the hard-headed indecipherable Thomas Edison and Tom Holland as Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull. The Shape of Water (2017) star Michael Shannon plays the rough, brooding Westinghouse, and Mad Max’s Nicholas Hoult is the criminally underplayed Nikola Tesla. Tuppence Middleton is the show-stealing tragedy, Mary Edison, and Katherine Waterson plays Westinghouse’s long-suffering, adoring wife Marguerite.
Some accents grate on the ear in an unflatteringly forced nature - Cumberbatch’s posh-boy twang is particularly notable through his overplayed attempted Southern twang. Holland’s natural Queens’ English feels shudderingly out of place in the middle-America landscape, and Hoult’s Serbian accent, while an acceptable attempt, is too soft to be taken seriously amongst an audio feast. Submarine’s (2010) Craig Roberts features momentarily, with a Welsh American lilt that is enough to nearly entirely remove the ingrained suspension of disbelief.
Stereotypical and oftentimes cringingly predictable rising orchestral pieces pepper the soundtrack in an unnecessary attempt to bring more dramatics to this slow-paced, enticing drama. The Current War is a tumbler of whiskey, not an Old Fashioned, but the shoehorning of tragic Close Encounters-esque (1978) twitching strings force it into late-night Mbargos shot territory.
After a two year gap between initial premiere and general release, The Current War is a victim of its own build-up. There is no way to make a 24-month hiatus surreptitious, it is either deemed unworthy of its hype or a predestined success, untouchable by the likes of mere audience criticism. The Current War falls neatly in between the two, with the pull of stardom - Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s (2016) Katherine Waterston has practically fallen through the cracks two years on - wasted on the wait but the pigeon-holing of other actors further afield has paid off - Tom Holland is able to be taken more seriously as the budding enterprising assistant the more the memory of his spandex spider suit fades.
After a two year gap between initial premiere and general release, The Current War is a victim of its own build-up
A particularly satisfying cinematic trope is the use of flashbacks, scattered leisurely throughout, revealing in a gratifying gasp the true power of Westinghouse’s intellectual charm. This adds to the film’s rumbling tensions and tenacity which endure throughout. It all culminates in a cinematic feat, which though sometimes overdone, is nevertheless an enjoyable watch.
Featured image: IMDb / The Weinstein Company
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