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The tussle for supremacy in the race to power the world with electricity is rewired as a heavyweight personality smackdown between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). According to this film – a long-shelved casualty of the Weinstein Company collapse – the professional rivalry was scarred by treachery, tragedy and ruthlessness. A formula for a sparky period piece, you might think. But there’s an edge of panicky desperation to the film-making – the lurching, swooping cameras; the skittish editing; the arcing lens flare. It all seems a little too eager to distract from the fact that top-hatted, frock-coated, mutton-chopped chaps burbling on about the relative advantages of the alternating current versus direct current system does not, in fact, make for electrifying drama.
The high-wire balance between scientific credibility and human interest is always a tricky one to pull off. Other pictures – The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything being recent examples – have skewed towards the more accessible end of the spectrum by emphasising the personal stories that upholster the hard edges of obsessive theoretical minds. But despite, or perhaps because of, an early bereavement in Edison’s personal life, as a character he has all the warmth of a circuit diagram.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem – another Cumberbatch performance, in The Imitation Game, was similarly angular and unapproachable. But the Venn diagram intersection between the two key characters here is filled with physics and grudges but no actual interaction to speak of. Michael Mitnick’s exposition-heavy screenplay contains two fleeting, presumably fictional, encounters between the pair, and just one conversation.
Something of a satellite in the story is Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), arguably the most interesting character and certainly the one who is most underused here. Likewise the female characters: Katherine Waterston, as Westinghouse’s wife, Marguerite, makes an impression but her role is mainly to deliver pithy pep talks while wearing electric-blue frocks. Edison’s first wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton), is a cursory presence; his second wife, Mina, is excised from the story altogether.
Source: The Guardian
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