This is not your conventional biopic, but Tesla was not a conventional genius. Director Michael Almereyda turns this film on its head. It’s kind of theater of the absurd on film. Modern devices show up in odd places, Ethan Hawke sings, and there’s an ice cream fight between Tesla and Edison in this unique Period Piece.
Hawke’s performance is understated with a soft, mumbled Eastern European dialect that often detracts from the overall effect of the film. His sometimes indiscernible speech is confusing at times but fits in with this quirky presentation.
Director Michael Almereyda works with Ethan Hawke again (Cymbeline) in an ethereal presentation of Tesla’s battle with boss, Thomas Alva Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) for AC or DC as the standard for delivering energy and electricity. But Tesla had many other inventions rolling around in his head. He went off on his own after being overworked and discounted by the inventor of the light bulb. Almereyda shows the breakup hurling frozen treats at each other in bizarre food fight.
Almereyda told us at Sundance 2020 (winner of the Alfred P. Sloane award) that he started working on this script at the age of 16! In this iteration, he has the woman who helped secure financing for his inventions be the storyteller. Anne, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, took an interest in Tesla and his genius. Even though unrequited, she persuaded her father to bankroll his projects just so she could be near him. Almereyda has her fill in the blanks, breaking the fourth wall talking directly into the camera, while sitting in front of a Mac computer. That looks out of place, but Tesla was so ahead of his time, it’s as if it should almost fit.
You get to meet George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) as another inventor who helped fund Tesla’s experiments. Tesla always had several going. His goal was to create global wireless energy and electricity, x-rays, radio remote control and even camera that could take pictures of your thoughts.
MacLachlan isn’t portrayed as an amenable boss. MacLachlan, too, is low key, but tough. He had his own ideas and didn’t like to be challenged by anyone, especially Tesla in this film. Hawkes, Gaffigan, and MacLachlan were fascinated learning about the men they portrayed. So were we.
The film has a dark, gloomy veneer with painted backdrops instead of constructed sets. Some of what looked like archival footage of dogs being electrocuted in experiments is terribly disturbing. There’s a scene with French actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) strolling together on a snowy day that is very out of context. And then later in the film, Ethan Hawke breaks into a full-throated rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” That seemed rather strange and almost comical but as Hawke seemed to enjoy performing, he brought us along for the ride.
Almereyda inserts several head-scratching takes for effect, combining present day technology with experiments at the turn of the 20th century which are sometimes confounding. The structure of the film is confusing but brings out facts about historical rivalries and the development of inventions we use every day. Almereyda has created a truly unique experiment of his own with this film. The next time you flip on a light, Tesla might pop up in your brain.
IFC Films 1 hour 42 minutes PG-13
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