Film reviews: The Current War | Of Fish and Foe | Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love | Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans

In spite of a strong cast and plot, The Current War short-circuits while telling the story behind supplying electricity to the US

Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla in The Current War

The Current War (12A) **

Of Fish and Foe (12A) ****

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Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (12A) ***

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans (PG) **

Dramatising the literal and figurative power struggle that surged between Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla as they worked to supply America with electricity, The Current War generates a few sparks but very little dramatic juice as it debates the merits of AC or DC. Beginning shortly after Edison’s invention of the light bulb lit up humanity’s future, the film zeroes in on the early days of the race to make this future a reality by focusing on the enmity between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), the egotistical genius, and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), the pragmatic industrialist. As the film has it, the former’s snub of the latter transformed what should have been a mutually advantageous enterprise for the good of the country into an increasingly bitter battle to secure their respective legacies – with the fate of the Serbian-born Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was perhaps the most visionary of the three, used as a heavy-handed allegory for the careless disregard for immigrants in America. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the film plays like a Frankensteined amalgam of The Prestige (which also touched on this story), The Social Network and Steve Jobs, with the lumbering, indistinct results failing to bring the proto-tech giants at its centre to life in any meaningful way. Though the performances are fine, if a little one-note (it’s barely a stretch for Cumberbatch to play an arrogant know-it-all at this point), the plot is too episodic and the characters too lacking in motivation let the story flow in the way that it should.

Of Fish and Foe offers up a rough and ready portrait of a peculiar culture clash taking place in the north-east of Scotland. It involves the last family in the country to make a living from wild salmon netting and the animal rights activists who have descended en masse from outside Scotland to try and stop them invoking their legal right to protect their nets by culling seals. With both sides relentlessly filming each other, director Andy Heathcote and producer Heike Bachelier have a wealth of shakily shot surveillance footage to compliment their own efforts to provide a somewhat balanced view of the developing melée. True to this approach, neither side comes off particularly well, with members of the Pullar family caught expressing their frustrations in ignorant comments laced with homophobia and the self-righteous – and no less culturally ignorant – activists repeatedly disseminating blatant half-truths about the Pullars’ practices. But as the film develops, the activists become notably less willing to talk on camera and drop out of the film altogether after the Pullars are hit with a devastating EU directive that threatens their entire livelihood. The filmmakers trace the roots of this directive to an angling association intent on looking after the interests of wealthy tourists paying for the privilege of fishing for salmon in Scotland’s rivers. Allegations of collusion between the activists and the anglers duly follow but the film’s strength lies in the way it subtly probes the murky role class plays in defining how a country presents itself to the world.

Documentarian Nick Broomfield has made a career out of placing himself in the stories he’s investigating, but in Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love he’s part of the story already. Examining the lives of Leonard Cohen and his muse and lover Marianne Ihlen (whom Cohen immortalised in the song So Long Marianne), Broomfield reveals early on that not only were he and Marianne lovers too, but that she was something of a muse for him also – inspiring and encouraging him to make his first documentary. This fact doesn’t add much to our understanding of Marianne herself, but it does contribute to the overall theme of a film that seems quite enamoured with the whole artist/muse relationship, particularly all the great work that an untameable artistic genius can finally get done when he has an alluring, enigmatic and compliant figure to worship at his feet. That’s how Leonard and Marianne’s relationship is characterised early on as the film recounts its genesis on the Greek island of Hydra. For fans of Cohen, the film offers a treasure trove of archival material charting his journey from pretentious novelist to brilliant musician and yet, while it’s clearly also intended as a celebratory tribute to Marianne, she continues to be presented more as a mythological figure than as a human being with thoughts, feelings and desires of her own.

Designed to bring history to life for British school kids who like their facts couched in fart gags, Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans follows the template of the books and TV shows from which it has been adapted. Alas, it also promptly exposes the limits of applying sketch-show thinking to a movie. Rather than using its Roman Empire setting to make a slyly anarchic, Monty-Python-for-kids-style adventure, its over-reliance on scatalogical humour along with its be-true-to-who-you-are story about a smart-but-sensitive Roman boy and a desperate-for-action Celtic girl fail to generate many laughs. Padded out with embarrassing hip-hop inspired musical numbers, it’s the sort of cringe-worthy British kids’ films that will have its target audience running back to comfort of Pixar and Marvel. ■