THE Social Network, Margin Call, The Big Short, There Will Be Blood – making lots of money in business, or losing it, might not be a matter of life and death, but with the right characters and stories it can be the stuff of high drama.

The Current War is about the race between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison to bring electricity to America in the late nineteenth century. Set in a time of high excitement and huge possibilities, it is a tale that should crackle along, but central performances aside it turns out to be as dull as an eco-bulb.

Michael Shannon plays Westinghouse: a solid businessman with eye for the practical and the bottom line. Benedict Cumberbatch is Edison, brimming with ideas, arrogant, mercurial, genius (a typical Cumberbatch character in short). Both have the means to light towns and cities but Edison’s current can only travel so far, needs a lot of wiring and is expensive as a result.

Westinghouse can distribute power across vast distances and his juice can be used in factories, but there are question marks over safety.

Arriving on the scene is Nikola Tesla (played by Nicholas Hoult), who has his own ideas about electricity generation and a plan to harness the power of Niagara Falls one day. The three men are rivals and sometime associates, each one determined to see their dreams realised. Keeping a close eye on the race is banker JP Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen), while the wives of Edison and Westinghouse (Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton) drift in and out of the tale, dispensing advice to their spouses and occasionally adding to the drama.

Cumberbatch and Shannon fizz and roar, the screenplay adds in further plot strands, including the invention of the electric chair as a supposedly more “civilised” way of executing people, and the picture is handsomely shot.

But there is no getting away from the fact that large stretches of dialogue are taken up with explaining what each inventor was trying to achieve. It takes a particular talent to make electricity generation interesting and such skill is not in evidence here. On several occasions I felt the need to consult a YouTube tutorial on basic electrics just to understand what was going on.

The technical content should have been stripped back to the minimum, allowing Cumberbatch and Shannon to clash more. They share barely any screen time mano a mano, and it is telling that one of the film’s most compelling scenes features them together at the World Fair, chewing the fat. More of the jaw-jaw, and less of the bore-bore, and a better film would have emerged from the gloom.