Electric Fix: Ethan Hawke in Tesla
Verdict: 8/10 - Tesla is a curiosity of a film whose ambition you have to admire, even if like Tesla himself, it also frustrates.
Release Date: 
Monday, September 21, 2020
Written by: 

Electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla receives a biopic that explores his enigmatic genius.


Nikola Tesla is one of history's most fascinating yet enigmatic figures.

An immigrant to the developing United States who, as a pioneer of alternating current electricity, should have embodied the American dream - but died in relative obscurity compared to his great rival, Thomas Edison.

Instead, he has become more of a mythological figure. Someone existing on the edge of the possible - a reputation Christopher Nolan drew on when casting David Bowie as a fictionalised Tesla in his magician drama The Prestige.

Not quite of this world, his inventions terrified and frustrated as well as becoming the basis for the electricity grid we all rely on today.

Now, from Michael Almereyda, we get a biopic of sorts, starring Ethan Hawke as the great unappreciated inventor.

Unlike 2019's The Current War, which focused on Edison and played things relatively straight, the film is more interested in exploring its subject's psychology and visionary thinking.

Almereyda uses an unusual method to look into this - deliberate anachronism. Characters, like Tesla's sometime employer Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), are seen with modern technology like an iPhone, and in one bizarre but vaguely thrilling scene, Tesla belts out Tears for Fears' 1985 hit Everybody Wants to Rule the World.

These are used to help make the film's central point and theme - that Tesla, who struggles with the realities of business and dealing with his financiers like J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) and pioneer George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), may have envisioned the technological marvels of today.


At times, this wandering, flight of fancy style can be a little frustrating and detracts from the drama.

For example, a fictionalised love triangle between Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), Tesla and actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) doesn't quite have the power it should, despite Morgan, the daughter of J.P., doubling up as the narrator.

Despite this, the great performances from the cast - Hawke and MacLachlan, in particular - mean the mind doesn't totally wander. Sean Price Williams' cinematography also makes for a beautiful film to look at - marrying the darker, badly lit hues of the past with brighter moments of modernity and clarity.

Ultimately, like the man himself, Tesla is something of an intriguing curiosity.

It fails to satisfy in a traditional dramatic sense but is never uninteresting. It's a choice that may mean it gains a narrower audience than some treatments of Tesla's life, but one that may be deliberate on Almereyda's part as the only way to get to the heart of what drove and hindered the great electrical inventor.

Out now on digital download.

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