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‘The Current War,’ an electrical period piece, seldom flickers to life

The 1880s rivalry of Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) is told in pompous and meandering fashion.

Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) performs one of several electrical demos in “The Current War.”
101 Studios

When it comes to Benedict Cumberbatch portrayals of mercurial geniuses, the Alan Turing of “The Imitation Game” and the Doctor Strange of the MCU are a whole lot more interesting and compelling than the Thomas Edison of “The Current War.”

This Edison guy is SUCH a petulant, narcissistic, anti-social jerk. He seems to take little joy in pioneering everything from the electric light bulb to the phonograph to the motion picture camera, while expending a TON of energy belittling his underling Nikolai Tesla, engaging in dirty tricks against his rival George Westinghouse and preening like a peacock for the media.

Worse than all that, he’s mired in an overwrought yet curiously flat fictionalization of the late 19th century battle between Edison and Michael Shannon’s Westinghouse to literally light up the country via the long-lasting incandescent lightbulb.

Edison, describing the day when a bulb he had created generated light for some 13 ½ hours before finally popping: “It was like [watching] the baby Jesus playing Mozart.”

OK, THAT’S a ridiculous mental image.

It’s the 1880s, a time of swirling camera moves and (admittedly) gorgeous visuals of locomotives hurling through the night and celebratory gatherings in Manhattan and upper-crust gentlemen meeting in lavishly appointed offices to discuss progress, with all its financial ramifications. What a time to be an American! Especially a white, privileged, East Coast American.

With the backing of the blunt, no-nonsense J.P. Morgan (Matthew MacFadyen), the already famed and celebrated Thomas Edison creates a direct current (DC) distribution system that can provide electricity to small pockets in various cities.

Meanwhile, Westinghouse masterfully skirts various trademark infringement concerns and charges forward with his plan to distribute electricity via the cheaper and faster alternating current, aka AC, so yes, this is the story of AC/DC but it’s hardly “Thunderstruck.” (Sorry about that.)

Westinghouse is a smart and decent fellow with a firm grasp of science, and he’s brilliant businessman — but he’d be the first to admit he’s no genius on the level of Edison. Still, after Edison blows off a meeting between the two, Westinghouse becomes obsessed with besting Edison on the business field of play

Edison, on the other hand, will resort to any means necessary to defeat Westinghouse, including mounting a public campaign to denounce AC as so dangerous it will surely kill people. He demonstrates his concerns by electrocuting a horse in front of invited press — the first of more than a dozen stunts. What a fun guy.

Katherine Waterston and Michael Shannon in “The Current War.”
101 Studios

Nicholas Hoult shines in a supporting role as the Serbian immigrant Nikolai Tesla, whose own world-shattering inventions are shrugged off by Edison and the world in general, until his brilliance cannot be ignored. Tom Holland has a nothing role as Edison’s loyal assistant. Katherine Waterston is terrific as Westinghouse’s loyal wife and partner, who encourages him to take off the gloves and get tough as Westinghouse and Edison compete for the exclusive rights to provide power for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (which looks spectacular in the CGI renderings late in the film).

“The Current War” debuted at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival but then was shelved because Harvey Weinstein was the producer and distributor. It’s now seeing the light of day (so to speak), and while there are some sparks of creativity in the script by Michael Mitnick and some strong performances (most notably from Shannon and Waterston), it fizzles out under the weight of a pompous and meandering storyline that includes cryptic flashbacks to a wartime encounter, and a strange subplot about the advent of the electric chair.

Even the likes of Thomas Edison would have to go back to the lab and do some tinkering to make this one shine.