Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The fact that Michael Almereyda's playful biopic doesn't quite fire on all cylinders feels more like a tribute than a failing." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Cara Howe

Nikola Tesla was the greatest visionary of his time, a man whose name might be mentioned in the same breath as Archimedes and Leonardo da Vinci. Ethan Hawke is looking increasingly like one of the greatest actors of his. It's a pairing made in Heaven. The fact that Michael Almereyda's playful biopic doesn't quite fire on all cylinders feels more like a tribute than a failing. Rather than a celebration of his creations, it's an attempt to capture Tesla the man, to understand the pressures that genius brings.

Taking on the role of narrator is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of the famed financier JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), who is smitten with the inventor partly because of his resemblance to her cat (played by a marvellously languorous Luna). It soon becomes apparent to her that romance is not on the cards - he's far too wrapped up in his work - but she remains a devoted friend, there to support or criticise as needed over the next dozen years as Tesla's career builds towards its peak, before the long, forgotten years. Often breaking the fourth wall, she uses a laptop when alone and flits easily between eras as if her proximity to the visionary has liberated her from history's constraints.

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Whilst it seems appropriate that Almereyda's film should be experimental, this won't be for everyone. A musical number close to the end is likely to be especially divisive despite the neat way that it sums up Tesla's plight and despite the poignancy of Hawke's performance (he's a much more proficient singer when occasion calls for it). Some, however, will experience these scenes like shadows from the future, bleeding colour into the past, and it's arguably impossible to address Tesla's life purely from the point of view of an era that he never fitted into.

Whenever a new piece of art focuses on Tesla, it's intriguing to see which of his inventions it brings to the fore. Almereyda focuses heavily on his alternating current induction motor and his fascination with long distance communication, essentially a vision of the internet. There is no messing about with boats, no proto-radar and barely a hint of his work on turbines. Tesla coils, for all their natural cinematic appeal, are absent (though there is a rather charming suggestion that he invented the lightsaber) and nary a mention of his apology for what happened at Tunguska. One could not do it all justice, however; better to use whatever translates most easily, decade by decade.

Though Hawke doesn't look all the much like Tesla normally, he achieves quite a striking physical resemblance through way he uses his face and through his slightly awkward body language. There are relatively few surviving photographs but we see many of them here, captured in the frame in the process of visual storytelling. Beyond this, Almereyda is interested in personalities. Rebecca Dyan makes a sizzling Sarah Bernhardt, the celebrated actress who made a bold effort to sweep Tesla off his feet, and Kyle MacLachlan is on fine form as a resentful, self-obsessed but still intermittently brilliant Thomas Edison.

It's a bold film, almost going out of its way to be difficult. One is reminded of Steven Shainberg's Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Perhaps most daringly, Almereyda delves into the inventor's politics, his constant frustration with the workings of capitalism which he sees as preventing him from empowering ordinary people, in whom he never ceases to have faith. It highlights Tesla's naivety and continually precarious position, his preoccupation with the future perhaps blocking out a good bit of his awareness of what's going on around him. It is a difficult thing to live i the wrong time. Tesla's tragedy, this film suggests, lies in just how close he got to escape.

Reviewed on: 20 Aug 2020
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Highlighting the Promethean struggles of Nikola Tesla, as he attempts to transcend entrenched technology –including his own previous work – by pioneering a system of wireless energy that will change the world.
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Sundance 2020

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