James Jay Edwards reviews Tesla, a biopic written and directed by Michael Almereyda, and starring Ethan Hawke. (IFC Films)
Historical biopics always run the risk of being stodgy and stiff affairs. And while Tesla is presented a little more creatively than most, it’s still a stodgy and stiff affair.
Tesla is, as one can surmise from the title, about scientist Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), one of the fathers of modern electricity. The film mainly covers his adult life, including his rivalry with fellow father of modern electricity Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and his business relationship with mogul George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan).
(Tesla, theatrical release poster, IFC Films)
What makes Tesla so unique is the reckless abandon with which writer/director Michael Almereyda plays while presenting his subject matter. The movie is essentially narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of financial magnate J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) and “smitten victim” of the mad genius, whose accounts of events are unreliable at best. Anne’s narration is accompanied by news clippings and old photographs, giving Tesla an almost documentary feel. Except that, as the movie reveals, much of what she says is false. Some of Anne’s testimony debunks myths about Tesla (“this meeting never happened,” after clearly showing the meeting in the film), but a lot of it is just filtered through the eyes of a character who wanted to be close to the subject, but was always kept at arm’s length.
From a stylistic standpoint, Tesla is a marvel. Not satisfied with just tackling his subject’s life, Almereyda fills his movie with fourth wall breaks and rear-projection screens, giving the whole thing a surreal vibe not unlike that of a stage play. The lighting is very live theater-esque as well, going from a very natural and minimalistic look in the historical re-enactment scenes to a bathed-in-primary-colors motif for the more dreamlike sequences. It’s inconsistent, but honestly, that’s the most entertaining element of the film.
(Tesla, IFC Films)
Just as Tesla is a visually pretty film, it’s very well-acted. The performances are as stuffy as period piece performances should be, with just the right amount of starch and eyebrow. Where Tesla falters is in its storyline. Even Anne’s corrections and fabrications don’t inject any real drama into the plot. Sure, the interplay between Tesla and Edison is entertaining, but that says more about Hawke and MacLachlan than it does about the movie. Even the Kemmler execution, the first execution by electrocution, is presented as bland and sterile, instead of the emotionally charged tentpole scene that it could have—and should have—been.
To its credit, the third act of Tesla does try to liven things up a bit by emphasizing the eccentric visionary side of Tesla’s persona. It almost becomes a science fiction movie as Tesla ponders life in space and his ideas for communicating with it. This all falls into the “through Anne’s eyes” category, but it frankly makes the character—and the movie—more fun to watch, even if it is just for the end.
(Tesla, IFC Films)
The best way to describe Tesla is “interesting.” Not all of it is effective. In fact, it fails more often than it succeeds. It’s not good, but it’s watchable, if only to find out what the hell Almereyda is going to do next. And if you’ve ever wanted to see Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla do a fully produced karaoke version of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Want to Rule the World,” well, you’ll be in heaven. I’m not kidding—that really happens in Tesla. It’s one of those surreal, dreamlike sequences we were discussing that keeps the movie from being a complete bore.