Such is the latent tragic power of 19th century genius Nikola Tesla that he remains an enigmatic figure of fascination, as Michael Almereyda’s offbeat biopic suggests.
In 2003, a group of founders including the now infamous billionaire Elon Musk launched Tesla Motors Inc, what would later become Tesla, and emerge as the world’s foremost provider of electric vehicles and clean energy in the modern world. Musk’s well known aspirations as one of this centuries technological pioneers, not to mention his eccentric reputation, all stem from the influence of the original Tesla, the tentacles of his unique, imaginative and ultimately rejected scientific concepts stretching across more than a century. Almereyda’s take on the man’s life, the first dramatic biopic after a recent 2016 documentary (and indeed an appearance by him in Doctor Who), is designed to remind us of his genius.
Inevitably, however, this being an Almereyda picture, Tesla refuses to be a straight down the line, traditional historical portrait, and rather an avant garde, often wilfully navel-gazing depiction of lost greatness.
A version of Tesla was actually the first script Almereyda ever penned, many years ago, which he originally intended Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski to make, but much like the 19th century wasn’t ready for Nikola, perhaps the late 20th was unprepared for what would become Almereyda’s Tesla.
Throughout his picture, you get the sense that more of an elegant, intriguing film lurks on the fringes of Almereyda’s frame. This isn’t necessarily as dull as the other recent film to dramatise Thomas Edison, The Current War, but Tesla is arguably much more ponderous. The Current War was at least able to frame the Victorian-era, post-Industrial Revolution technological enlightenment as an electrical ‘cold war’ of sorts between brilliant engineers, but Tesla is deep rooted in the injustice of a man whose inventions—principally his ideas about alternating currents—were overshadowed by opportunistic, ‘lesser’ American men, such as Edison himself.
Almereyda doesn’t provide an alternate history, as such, but rather a hagiographical retrospective examination of Tesla, the man, through his unique mind, his designs and his relationships with women – such as Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the greatest stage actress of the 19th century (played here by Rebecca Dayan), his wife Mina (Hannah Gross) and the most daring character the director gives us in Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of industrialist J. P. Morgan and our narrator… from the present. Yeah, don’t ask what that’s about. When we cut to Anne, helpfully explaining points of Tesla’s history while firing up an Apple Mac, the best advice is to just go for it.
Mainly because at these points Tesla is indulging a documentarian bent through Anne (or Hewson, as it is not always clear how this works), framing the history through a less than clear docu-drama lens. Almereyda has discussed how he was influenced in his approach by figures as diverse as Derek Jarman and Henry James, but Tesla is perhaps never eccentric or profoundly weird enough to stand out as a truly innovative biopic. With all of the trappings of 19th century production design and surroundings (even if the picture doesn’t look lavish), it almost wants one foot in tradition while working to break the 4th wall and provide a meta-historic view of Tesla, fuelled by the knowledge we have of him from a future in which he is better regarded and of greater renown.
As a result, Tesla feels unformed, often languid, and frequently aimless. Ethan Hawke does what he can with the script and while his turn is stronger than David Bowie’s cod-Irish, monotone take in The Prestige (the only other major portrayal in mainstream cinema to date, outside of Nicholas Hoult’s more faithful but unmemorable turn in The Current War), it does not rank among his greatest performances and even he cannot capture the audience enough when the constituent parts refuse to work. Hawke is, much like fellow travellers Jim Gaffigan and Lois Smith, a regular confederate of Almereyeda, but the returns here are not boundless despite their long relationship. Tesla, fundamentally, never lights up the board.
This is a shame, because there is a sharper, more intriguing, more dare I say it, electric, picture somewhere in the mix here. Tesla simply never manages to find it, and gets lost as a result. Which given the subject matter seems oddly appropriate.
Tesla is out on digital download from Lionsgate UK now.