Written and directed by Michael Almereyda.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan, Hannah Gross, Josh Hamilton, Lois Smith, Lucy Walters, James Urbaniak, Ian Lithgow, John Palladino and David Kallaway.
A freewheeling take on visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, his interactions with Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, and his breakthroughs in transmitting electrical power and light.
Michael Almereyda has no interest in following the tried-and-tested route for biopics. His experimental bent will come as no surprise to fans of his work, and here he’s teamed up with actor Ethan Hawke again, following their collaboration on 2000’s modern-day Hamlet.
Based on the first screenplay Almereyda ever wrote, the writer-director revisited the project and “reinvented it for the present moment.” Tesla is not traditional in any sense, conforming to few norms of cinema’s sense and structures of time and place. There’s no real chronological narrative, nor is this in any way a complete potted history of inventor Nikola Tesla. Instead Tesla is a messy but engaging ride through key scenes in the Serbian-American’s life, many of which aren’t even real. But its spirit is undeniable, and somehow the film conjures good insight into a man often overshadowed by his contemporary (and – briefly – co-worker), Thomas Edison.
These vignettes are based on key points in Tesla’s inventing career, and ones that would have great impact on both the man and the history set to unfold from his actions. Key players are, of course, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, another Hamlet alumnus), with whom he waged the “War of Currents”, as well as George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan, My Boys), his associate Anital Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Girls), and J.P. Morgan heiress, Anne (Eve Hewson, The Luminaries). This sort of structure might normally mean a struggle to present a lucid story, but the intimate atmosphere created by the actors, with strong performances all around, makes it relatively easy to jump into these scenes and stay engaged.
Almereyda has a lot of fun with the obvious anachronisms he gleefully dumps into the film, from Anne narrating proceedings with historical hindsight, the help of Google and a laptop, to Edison checking his smartphone at a bar. These are obvious nods to the monumental, world-changing inventions that Tesla and Edison’s work would produce. There are also the cheekier, more unexpected additions, like Hawke’s performance of Tears for Fears hit, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, because… why not? It doesn’t really make any sense, but it’s an undoubted highlight. Perhaps Almereyda is keen to remind us that the rules of cinema and film-making are there to be broken? Or he’s just a real fan of 80s pop and electro music (which the soundtrack also suggests).
Sometimes Tesla leans quite hard into breaking the boundaries of conventional cinema, leading to a whiff of ‘multimedia theatre presentation’ when it comes to the obvious use of backdrops and actors stepping up to speak into a microphone. It’s hard to pin down the type of film Tesla wants to be, which is both its greatest strength and its own stumbling block. But it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t offer range, from the delights of an Edison-Tesla ice cream fight to the horror of watching a man fry to death on an electric chair.
Ethan Hawke is a solid lead as Tesla, entirely natural as the passionate but awkward and introverted man, driven by inventions and patents (he obtained around 300). MacLachlan is satisfying as his bombastic, rather smug foil, and Moss-Bachrach is as quiet and dependable as ever. The film, however, belongs to Eve Hewson, who brings a charming, multi-layered presence, despite not having much to work with at all. Her part is simply sketched from the suggestion of an almost-romance with Tesla, and yet she holds the film together.
Tesla certainly has sparks of ingenuity, but the ignited flame sputters occasionally.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★