Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival was a night for ambitious period dramas from relatively new directors only one movie removed from making small indies. First there was “Wadjda” director Haifaa al-Mansour with the uneven literary saga “Mary Shelley” — and about an hour after that film let out at Roy Thomson Hall, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon premiered his new film, “The Current War,” a block away at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Gomez-Rejon’s film begins in 1880 — when, as a title card tells us, “the world is still lit by fire.” But that’s soon to change, thanks to the central figures in Gomez-Rejon’s playful historical tale: inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and eccentric French genius Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).
There are a few things it helps to know before seeing the film, which the Weinstein Company will release in the U.S. in December: Edison, the most famous inventor in the country, was racing to supply electric light and power to cities via a system of direct-current electricity, which powered Edison’s state-of-the-art lightbulbs but required short distances between generators.
Westinghouse was playing catch-up, but he had a cheaper system that used alternating current and required far fewer generators — the drawback being that AC was too powerful to work with small electrical appliances, and was more dangerous.
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The film title calls it a war, but the conflict between Edison and Westinghouse was more of a series of skirmishes. Westinghouse originally wanted to join forces with Edison, but Edison felt ripped off and wouldn’t concede that AC was a better option in the long run; over time, they battled over patents, over the contract for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1993, even over the first electric chair. (In a shot at his rival that today’s political spin doctors would envy, Edison tried to get the press to use the word “westinghousing” rather than “electrocution.”)
Spanning a few decades and incorporating a fair amount of visual effects, “The Current War” is a challenging undertaking for a director known for a couple of small films. But Gomez-Rejon serves notice right away that he has no intention of ditching his indie instincts just because this is a bigger movie; with wry humor, occasional off-kilter camera angles and enough quirkiness to keep it out of the Oscar Bait category you might expect of a true-life period drama, the opening stretch of “The Current War” feels surprisingly fresh.
But it’s hard to pull off a quirky historical epic, and as “The Current War” goes on it is sometimes too artsy to tell a clear story, sometimes too straightforward to retain its indie sensibility. Cumberbatch is fine as a man who’s too smart for his own good, and unpleasant enough that we have to see him being good to his kids so we can warm up to him; Shannon does well as the more reasonable of the men, and Hoult appears so sporadically as Tesla that his eccentricities never really register.
The film has some magical moments, but it’s tough to pull off the balancing act Gomez-Rejon is trying to achieve for the full course of “The Current War.” But better a historical film that tries to be fresh over one that toes the line.
Plus, there’s a postscript of sorts: Edison patented the movie camera, too, so he’s the reason we were all in Toronto.