FilmSpace: The Current War; Horrible Histories: The Movie - Rotten Romans

Film critic Calum Cooper reviews some of the week’s new releases, including the new Thomas Edison biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and the movie adaptation of the popular books and CBBC series.

The Current War – ★★☆☆☆

The Current War plays out in a similar way to the Direct Current one of its central characters is promoting. DC electricity starts off powerful, but the more it travels the more energy it loses. In the case of the film, its setup is an intriguing one that boasts plenty of thematic potential. But it begins losing its appeal as its complexities and points of interest are compacted into something indistinguishable.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison, who’s often branded as America’s greatest inventor, and rightfully so. The year is 1880, and Edison has discovered a way to light up an entire district in New York. With his sights now set on using his designs (including that of the lightbulb) to light up the entire continent of America, he finds himself with competition. A much richer man with connections to the gas industry, George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), has provided another option for distributing electricity in the form of alternating current, which would be much more powerful, but also risk the death of another person where Direct Current would not. The film sees the race between the two men to get their form of electricity up and running across the continent, with the supporting cast including Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tessla, as well as Katherine Waterston, Tuppance Middleton, and Tom Holland.

The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2017, but is only now getting distributed. This was due to originally being owned by The Weinstein Company, and, when certain things came to light, was shelved until being picked up again by 101 Studios and Lantern Entertainment. Nonetheless, this is one of those films that would’ve worked a lot better as a TV mini-series than a movie. There’s so much information and intricacies to take in regarding this war of currents that I could see a mini-series exploring much better than the limiting two hours this film gives itself.

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It’s directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, director of 2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, an overlooked film that I really like. I bring it up as that film was great at taking an extended period of time and condensing it into a flowing narrative. However, the difference was that the focal point was the relationship between two characters. This film does concern a rivalry between two (and eventually three) characters, but its cramming far too much story into its runtime. The film begins in 1880, and ends in 1891. Jumping forward in time so frequently can work sometimes, but in this case the film seems almost desperate to get to the finish line. It’s a disservice that leaves each key plot point underdeveloped.

As a result of prioritising its cluttered narrative, the characters and their potential arcs get left behind. Cumberbatch is essentially playing another Sherlock clone with this role, but the varying routes of interest the film could’ve followed in regards to Edison are only lightly brushed. Tesla feels like a last minute addition rather than an integral component, and I couldn’t find much to invest in with Westinghouse, other than Shannon’s performance. The film trundles along delivering occasionally snappy dialogue, but doesn’t do enough with any of its characters outside of convention to justify why the audience should come along for the ride. They feel more like chess pieces on a board rather than the ones playing the game.

I admire the willingness to tackle a historical event many probably haven’t heard of, including myself prior to this film. But The Current War needed much more time to divulge into both its narrative and its camera. It’s a decent piece of filmmaking in terms of cinematography and the odd bit of dialogue, but in the end, there’s little to separate it from other movies in which Cumberbatch plays a genius.

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans – ★★★☆☆

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans is a film that captures the heart of its books and subsequent TV series ridiculously well. While I was never an avid reader of the books, the front covers were always enough to give you a good idea of what kind of material you were in for. If the books or the TV show (which I admittedly haven’t watched) are along the lines of something you would enjoy then the movie will be no different.

Sebastian Croft plays Atti, a Roman teenager who is indifferent to both the Roman Empire and the new Emperor Nero. One of his crafty schemes earns him the ire of Nero however, and he is sent with a cavalry to Britain to conquer the Celtic villages. He is captured by an aspiring warrior Celt named Orla (Emilia Jones), who wants to prove her worth to her father (Nick Frost), the leader of their Celtic village. Over time, the two opposite personalities begin bonding whilst tensions between Romans and the Celts grow.

The Horrible Histories books utilised satire and modern references in order to teach younger audiences about various historical events, and this film follows suit. In this case, the film uses its premise to revel in both Roman and Celtic settings. There’s references and scenarios set during Nero’s coronation or the Battle of Watling Street, two of the bigger historical events. But there’s also plenty of small titbits to Celtic and Roman culture, lifestyle, and beliefs, giving audiences loads of historical nutrition to sink their teeth into. They’re framed around a modern lens, but in a way that engages.

It’s very much primary school type humour, but it’s comedy for the sake of education, and, as a graduate in Joint Honours History, I find that hard not to admire.

The film’s sense of humour is hardly subtle – there’s a mountain of potty humour and nods to contemporary devices like iPhones – but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t tickle my funny bone at times. Much of that comes from how the actors work off of each other, whether as duos or trios. Craig Roberts’ Nero is deliciously spoilt, working well opposite his conniving mother (Kim Cattrall) and fearful servant (Alex McQueen). There’s even a very clever call-back by casting Derek Jacobi as Claudius as a cameo. Lee Mack is relentlessly funny as Decimus, a general in the Roman army who wants nothing more than to get away from soggy Britain and back to the warm haven of Rome, delivering the strongest laughs, while Croft and Jones have a lot of delightfully playful chemistry, throwing jabs, insults, and eventually vulnerable truths with one another. You may not be roaring with laughter per se, but you’ll certainly be giggling like a little kid at times.

As a vehicle for storytelling the film also works for it ridicules its historical figures, while simultaneously building up its fictitious characters into people we enjoy spending time with. Orla and Atti are as much platforms for humour as Nero or the rebel Boudica (Kate Nash), but they also feel like real people who inhabit the world, however cartoonish it gets.  You buy their growing friendship, and you want to see both of them get what they want in the end, whether that’s a way out of the Roman Army or the chance to prove to their father what they can do.

What we have here is a film that, much like its literary counterparts, entices younger audiences into the cesspool of intrigue that is history. It does this by appealing to a more juvenile comedic style and by treating its audience as mature enough to handle the more gruesome aspects of history, which the source material, and by extension this film, surprising doesn’t hold back on. In the process we have a movie that’s more entertaining than it has a right to be. It’s very much primary school type humour, but it’s comedy for the sake of education, and, as a graduate in Joint Honours History, I find that hard not to admire.

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