VOD film review: Tesla
Testing out theories8
Josh Slater-Williams | On 24, Sep 2020
Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan
Watch Tesla online in the UK: iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Since breaking through as a writer-director in the 1990s, with oddities such as 1994’s post-modern vampire tale Nadja, Michael Almereyda has remained one of American independent cinema’s most unpredictable creative forces. What is consistent among his recent fiction efforts – he also dabbles in documentary – is playfulness when it comes to genre or adaptation, such as in housebound sci-fi Marjorie Prime or his 2000 take on Hamlet. The latter saw Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark become the son of the newly dead CEO of Denmark Corporation in New York City, with Ethan Hawke delivering the key “to be or not to be” speech in a Blockbuster Video store.
Hamlet leads Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan reunite with Almereyda for Tesla, a freewheeling biopic of inventor Nikola Tesla (Hawke) that focuses on his antagonistic interactions with Thomas Edison (MacLachlan); his scientific developments concerning the transmission of electrical power and light; his business matters with entrepreneur George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan); and his relationship of sorts with philanthropist Anne (Eve Hewson), daughter of dominant American financier JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Some of this narrative territory was also explored in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s recent The Current War, in which Nicholas Hoult, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon and Matthew Macfadyen played Tesla, Edison, Westinghouse and Morgan, respectively. But two more different takes on ostensibly similar material you are unlikely to find.
Potentially the most idiosyncratic biopic since Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (with its multiple Bob Dylan avatars), and resembling Almereyda’s own Experimenter in its use of various alienation devices, Tesla utilises playful techniques and anachronisms throughout, from fourth-wall-breaking, omniscient narration from Anne – in which she references the various male players’ legacies through the number of images in Google searches of their names – to the film pausing to fact-check itself and acknowledge that certain scenes are dramatised (such as an ice cream cone fight between Tesla and Edison) and likely didn’t happen that way. The sparsely furnished sets sometimes recall Derek Jarman. The colour palettes and one late foray into a musical number recall Guy Maddin. At one point MacLachlan’s Edison appears to be scrolling through an iPhone.
It would be so easy for this mishmash of styles and wit to ultimately produce something rather hollow, but Almereyda’s evident depth of knowledge and passion about the era, despite actively avoiding much in the way of traditional period trappings, shines through at all times. And while Hawke and MacLachlan’s respective withdrawn and condescending registers for their central performances are utilised for humour at many points, both also hint at tragedies and inner suffering that ensure the film does actually hit some meaningful emotional beats.