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Tesla review: A weird and imaginative biopic of a scientific great

A film about electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla makes interesting creative choices, such as imagining an alternative future. But it spends too much time focusing on Thomas Edison

Humans



19 August 2020

Tesla leaves you more interested in Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan)

IFC FILMS

Tesla

Michael Almereyda

Out 21 August

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TO MANY, Nikola Tesla is a folk hero. He is a steady fixture in science fiction, and his role in the war over whether alternating or direct current should be used to transmit electricity in the late 19th century has cemented him in the popular imagination as a slayer of giants. Take that, Thomas Edison.

In Tesla, director Michael Almereyda makes hay out of that war and other events from the visionary inventor’s life, but not without including a few fantastical turns of his own.

The film begins with Tesla (Ethan Hawke) working at Edison Machine Works, where he butts heads with his employer over funding. Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) is bullish and xenophobic, asking Tesla, who was born in what is now Croatia, if he has ever eaten human flesh.

The depictions of Edison’s attempts to discredit alternating current, from using it to kill animals in public demonstrations to the botched electrocution of a prisoner, is well-trodden ground for people familiar with his ruthlessness.

Yet the film achieves more nuance in its brief flashes of Edison’s personal life than it ever does with Tesla’s. A biopic that leaves you more interested in the subject’s rival has gone wrong somewhere.

Part of this failure comes from the moments that the film prioritises. Tesla’s poverty after leaving Edison’s firm and being swindled by his own business partners is mentioned only briefly, for instance, in favour of repetitive demonstrations of his induction motor that have none of the visual dynamism such a revolutionary invention deserves. “No sparks,” one observer notes.

“Tesla’s poverty after leaving Edison’s firm and being swindled is mentioned only briefly”

The story is periodically interrupted by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of one of Edison’s principal investors, who sits with a laptop and offers up pithy, fourth-wall-breaking context.

The film is also peppered with farcical metaphors, including ice-cream fights, rollerblading accidents and even an anachronistic rendition of Everybody Wants To Rule The World.

While these choices confuse as often as they delight, it is fitting for a Tesla biopic to take risks and display such imagination. One poignant scene asks us to envisage a world in which Edison apologises to Tesla and suggests a partnership. What could Tesla have achieved with the commercial guidance of “an enlightened hustler” like Edison?

Hawke plays Tesla as a morose workaholic, bristling with social discomfort. Though there is a degree of truth in that portrayal, Tesla was reportedly well-liked when he did socialise and had a variety of interests, with one contemporary describing him as “a poet, a philosopher, an appreciator of fine music, a linguist, and a connoisseur of food and drink”.

Such qualities are barely touched on, save for a sequence in which he is deeply moved by actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), who becomes a figure of fascination. It is in his interactions with her that Hawke is finally given something to do; Bernhardt witnesses Tesla’s humiliation at the hands of Edison and the shame breaks through his taciturn shell.

Ultimately, the film rarely finds the will to be interested in the man Tesla actually was. Coupled with its incoherent – if striking – aesthetic, this means Tesla too often feels like an empty frame, or a motor without the power to keep it running.

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