Biopic titles of a single name betray faith in the fame of their subjects. There is no other Judy, no other Lincoln, Seberg or Capote, to shuffle through a handful of examples. Our knowledge may be scattershot and only just about enough to nod through a passing reference in a conversation, but we recognise these names. Such titles signal prestige, implying that there is something to be learned and promising not only a famous identity encompassed, but that a star has transformed themselves inside and out to seamlessly embody that identity.
Tesla may utilise this biopic shorthand and has its obligatory star in the form of a taciturn Ethan Hawke as the brilliant inventor, but in every other respect it doesn’t try to distance itself from the clichés of the biopic so much as it runs a mile in the opposite direction, waving its arms above its head to ensure that you’ve noticed. Beginning in media res in a candlelit room soundtracked by a menacing accordion,Thomas Edison (an enjoyably smug Kyle MacLachlan) betrays his ruthlessness as a businessman by telling a revealing story about witnessing his friend’s drowning as a child. He suddenly turns his attention to the silent and watchful Nikola Tesla, and asks “Is it true you’re from Transylvania? Have you ever eaten human flesh?”
Thus writer and director Michael Almereyda, who first previously collaborated with Hawke and MacLachlan on his modern take on Hamlet, sets his idiosyncratic tone. The plot is the stuff of a pedestrian biopic: Tesla rises from an assistant taken advantage of by his famous boss to a key player in the battle between Edison and rival electrical pioneer George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) as he attempts to develop his revolutionary new electrical system. But his story is narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), who also appears in fourth-wall breaking and deliberately ahistorical asides in which she uses a laptop to help fill in some narrative and contextual gaps. The daughter of tycoon and Tesla’s patron J.P. Morgan, Anne’s unrequited fascination with Tesla makes her a fitting narrator as she endeavours to understand what made him tick, though it’s not exactly refreshing to see another young woman fawning over an enigmatic genius.
Almereyda introduced Tesla at Sundance as having been inspired by Derek Jarman, and his occasional use of modern objects in the period setting are certainly a nod to Jarman’s postmodern portrait of Caravaggio. Other history-defying touches are great fun, including a glimpse of Edison using a smartphone, a wonderfully unexpected karaoke moment and a blast of techno music to announce the arrival of actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), with whom Tesla enjoys a flirtation.
But audacious flourishes sadly can’t counteract the fact that this is a very talky film; much of the action takes place in murky, cigar smoke-filled rooms in which characters spout complicated, albeit necessary, exposition. Sequences in which Tesla gets to actually demonstrate and experiment with his inventions, including some obligatory playing with lightning, lend some literal brightness, but otherwise the colour palette is sludgy brown upon grey upon more brown.
Almereyda also has a few scenes play out on a stage against a projected backdrop, transporting us to the Serbian forests of his childhood, or the Colorado landscape where he conducts his lightning experiments. They add a certain panache but aren’t bold enough to make a lasting impression, and unfortunately also draw attention to a lack of budget and the film’s entrapment in those dark rooms.
But what of the titular Tesla, last portrayed by Nicholas Hoult in 2018’s The Current War but most memorably played by David Bowie in The Prestige? Ethan Hawke is solid if a little hollow with an admittedly tricky role, all silences and intense stares with a slightly wandering Serbian accent. Despite that karaoke scene that should be experienced unspoiled, he’s ultimately outshone by all Jarman-esque trappings around him. Yet while it might be far from a work of genius and only fleetingly fun, Tesla is still inventive (badum-tsh) and an admirable stab at reworking the biopic.
Tesla is available on digital download from September 21.