How do you like your history? In cinema, we know, it can come garbled, sometimes even gaga. For sheer storytelling chaos, humorous or horripilating, it is hard to beat — or to choose between — The Current War and Horrible Histories: The Movie — Rotten Romans.
The second at least has the excuse of intentionality. Horrible Histories was a series of slapstick TV shows. The writers, director (Dominic Brigstocke), and cast do their best. They pile on the good-natured twerpiness, from the opening logo of an MGM-styled rat growling through the MGM-styled nimbus of a toilet seat to the “I’m Fartacus” ensemble set piece.
Don’t take Aunt Edna. But take anyone else. Whenever the jokes wear thin we fall back, a little vertiginously, on the two best performances. Rupert Graves is funny as a pompous, misspeaking Roman general. Craig Roberts is better as a seedy, malicious Nero, an overgrown schoolboy bunged into power before his time, which should have been non-existent anyway. No allusion is intended to current or incumbent political leaders in post-Roman Britain.
“Current” is the pun in the title of the week’s other history class. The Current War is about the late-19th-century battle to establish AC or DC as the US’s electrical system. Seriously: that is the subject. Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse stomp about, volleying speeches at each other or anyone who will listen.
The script is prolix. The science is sometimes opaque. And Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film is dressed to kill, though the only murder victim is the movie. Throttled by production values, strangled by verbosity, it gives the lie to the proverb “History is bunk” (coined by Edison’s friend Henry Ford). No. History is a big, ornate, over-upholstered double bed, inviting two historical giants to share a tussle before artistic suffocation or cardiac arrest intervene.
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