Michael Almereyda's Tesla is narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of magnate J.P. Morgan. In the early minutes, she pulls out an Apple laptop, looks right at the camera, and tells viewers to Google the movie's two main characters. That's the first cue that the film isn't going to be historically accurate. Later, Thomas Edison is shown using a cellphone and Nikola Tesla sings Tears for Fears' “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Using incongruities like that can make a picture feel like it's straining for wit. Somehow, they feel right at home here. Tesla isn't designed to teach you anything, it just wants to celebrate the idea of vision.
Ethan Hawke plays Tesla. The story starts with him working for Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), then leaving in a dispute. He ends up teaming with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) to develop his alternating-current electricity, which they both hope will leave Edison's single-current design in the dust. Meanwhile, Tesla meets and becomes enchanted by both Anne and actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). All the while, he continues to find new uses for his design and other inventions, notably the famed Tesla coil.
Tesla is kind of about the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, but also kind of not. It certainly factors into the story at times. Mostly, though, Anne appears onscreen to fact-check the movie's invented moments or provide a Cliff's Notes summation of important historical details. Almereyda, whose 1994 vampire film Nadja was famously shot with a Fisher-Price PXL-2000 toy video camera, is more concerned with creating atmosphere. Aside from the times where the movie breaks the fourth wall or contains intentional anachronisms, Almereyda sometimes has his actors perform in front of what's clearly a backdrop. The idea is to hit some highlights from Tesla's career while using stylistic devices to emphasize the drive he had in bringing his ideas to life.
Hawke smartly underplays the character. His Tesla isn't the grand, outsized personality that inventors are often portrayed as onscreen. Instead, Hawke gives him a reticent, introverted quality, as if Tesla sees possibilities that others do not and is therefore laser-focused on them at all times. He's always looking to collaborate with whomever can get his work out there in the most prominent way. Imagine being able to realistically envision amazing advancements that the majority of people can only dream about, if they can think of them at all. That's Tesla – a portrait of guy whose foresight consumes him.
MacLachlan provides excellent supporting work as the enigmatic Edison, giving the man a barely-contained ego that collides nicely with Tesla's more restrained nature. Scenes in which the two square off are particularly satisfying to watch because Hawke and MacLachlan play such opposite ends of the spectrum so well. Hewson, the daughter of U2's Bono, is the real standout, however. She exudes a quiet charisma as Anne, and the way she conveys the character's attraction to Tesla's genius is touching.
Tesla is definitely (intentionally) a little weird. Almereyda has no desire to make a standard biopic. If ever-so-slightly obtuse at times, the movie nevertheless deserves credit for taking chances with its style. You have to surrender yourself to that idea, but if you do, the picture casts a hypnotic spell.
out of four
Tesla is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and nude images. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.