The life and ambitions of Nikola Tesla are pulled apart and assembled back together in an abstract fashion in Michael Almereyda’s biopic (if you can call it that). The inventions of Tesla, and even ideas that he couldn’t quite realise at the time, have formed the basis of so much of the technology we use today, from remote controls to smartphones and even the laptop I’m writing to you on right now. It is a fact that the film doesn’t let you forget, as it goes about its business of telling the truth (but not quite the whole truth) surrounding Tesla’s career, successes, and failures.
The film follows Ethan Hawke as Tesla through a loose structure that depicts some of the events of the pioneering inventor’s life, as he goes from working with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) to developing his AC current technology with Westinghouse Industries. The story is largely delivered to us by the character of Ann Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of JP Morgan and friend of Tesla. Through her narration, the film guides us through the most significant developments of Tesla’s career, coming to focus on his great unrealised Tesla Coil project, which has the ambition of developing the potential for wireless transfer of power.
This is by no means a biopic in the traditional sense of the term. It is peppered with details and technology that is contemporary, surrounding its depiction of Tesla with objects and sounds that his theories and ideas inspired years after his time. The voice-over and direct addresses to camera from Ann Morgan also signals out the liberties taken in this telling, a decision which both feels freeing and constricting. It is an interesting move to acknowledge its own existence as an abstract depiction of events, but the film often comes a bit too consumed with throwing in elements of self-awareness that it can often forget to inject some feeling into the proceedings. The impact of that is that the film can on occasion feel more distancing than it does engaging.
While some of the decisions can be a little frustrating, there’s no denying that this is quite a unique approach to a very unique individual. There’s a deliberately lo-fi approach on display, that leads to some impressive images that give the film a very arthouse spirit. The part of the film which focuses on Tesla and his team working on his towering coil out in Colorado has a great deal of atmosphere and a strong sense of discovery, mystery, and awe. Moments like this help to balance some of the film’s more pretentious tendencies with a pleasingly odd sensibility.
That obscure sense of intrigue is particularly enforced by Hawke’s quiet, gravelly-voiced performance. He does very well to convey the idea of a man who is constantly thinking about the future and new ideas, a brilliant yet very naive man whose own genius clouds him from making the most sensible decisions. There must’ve been a pressure to layer on the ticks and eccentricities on such a character, but Hawke holds back enough to give some heart behind a brilliant yet dysfunctional man. There’s strong support across the cast as well, with Hewson also proving to be a pleasingly odd figure to follow throughout, while MacLachlan brings some smarmy charm to the looming figure that is Thomas Edison.
Tesla may prove a little too frustrating and ponderous for some, as it quite deliberately obscures the facts and blurs the lines between its period setting with contemporary touches along the way. Not everything works, and it very much moves in ebbs and flows in terms of how engaging it can be. But it also moves down some intriguing detours and is quite a decent expression of a strange man living in a world where he is clearly ahead of his time, with much of that success coming down to Hawke’s thoughtful performance. There is clearly a value in constructing the type of period drama that allows you to feature Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla performing Tears for Fears ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’. An unconventional biopic whose peculiarities do offer some moments of electrifying inspiration.
Dir: Michael Almereyda
Scr: Michael Almereyda
DOP: Sean Price Williams
Music: John Paesano
Run time: 102 minutes
Tesla is in select cinemas and on-demand from September 21st.