At once dour and postmodern, this consciously loose interpretation of the great inventor and engineer, Nikola Tesla, is the story of a life and an interrogation of the biopic genre. Writer-director Michael Almereyda grasps the cinematic nettle to explore the interplay of fact and fiction, posing streams of broad speculative history against a rote citation of people, places and dates. It’s a strangely muted work that possesses the viewer with a slow creep of curiosity: gloomy interiors and superficially dry dialogue scenes interweave with phantasmagoric landscapes, outré musical numbers and startling anachronisms.
Ethan Hawke, always a watchable actor, imbues the character of Tesla with an almost naïve loftiness, transmuting the man’s major folly: a tendency to passive introspection that fed his financial exploitation and barren romantic destiny. His main business rival, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) provides most of the story’s antagonism, functioning as the self-appointed arbiter of both men’s scientific successes. The prominent and fickle financiers of the era, George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), prove to be the judges of mere innovators beneath them, allocating business failure according to their wants and needs.
The latter’s daughter, Anne (Eve Hewson), functions as the primary narrator, a sleight of hand that Almereyda highlights in confrontational interludes where she browses the Internet on a laptop, listing the relative disparity in Google hits Tesla has compared to Thomas Edison. The radical insertions of the 21st century present (mobile phones, vacuum cleaners, disco lights) serve to emphasise Tesla’s futurist credentials. His work on wave-based electricity transmission, for example, is shown to anticipate the global social connections later formed via the World Wide Web. This gives the film the chance to ironise Tesla’s thwarted, time-locked efforts at love and attachment.
The leaden script alludes both to a standard biographical account and to the difficulty in dramatising Tesla’s enigmatic interior consciousness. A quasi-apparitional figure, he’s faintly exoticised and made elusive, whether knowingly or not, but there is sufficient intrigue to warrant the viewer’s deeper consideration. Whether it’s the ice-cream cone fight between Tesla and Edison, the moral qualms about electrocution as a form of execution, the gilded roller-skating party, or Tesla’s ill-fated demands breathed through the wire fence of a tennis court, Almereyda has an eye for the obscure and the deadpan. According to the film, these potent impressions exist among the limitless, hitherto non-visual, possibilities of technology and invention.
Tesla is released digitally on demand on 12th January 2021.
Watch the trailer for Tesla here: