'Tesla': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A film uniquely plugged into its subject.

Ethan Hawke plays the misunderstood electrical engineering genius, with Kyle MacLachlan as his rival Thomas Edison, in Michael Almereyda's freewheeling deconstructed biopic.

Writer-director Michael Almereyda is an idiosyncratic storyteller with an affinity for brainy radicals and the work of forward-thinking scientific minds, most recently in Experimenter and Marjorie Prime. Which makes him the ideal maverick artist to examine the life of enigmatic inventor Nikola Tesla, who developed the breakthrough practical application for delivering alternating current electrical supply.

Pinging back and forth in audacious ways between the late 18th century and the present, Almereyda assembles an aptly livewire account of an unknowable outsider whose ideas about a world connected by wireless technology now make him seem like a field-leading visionary.

This match of filmmaker and subject was never going to yield a straightforward biographical drama and its approach will not be for everyone. But the meeting here of Almereyda's scholarly side with a consuming interest in understanding Tesla on a human level makes for a character study charged with constantly surprising vitality, even when it's making loopy choices that don't entirely work. A woozy karaoke version of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" will delight you or drive you nuts.

Either way, the obvious personal investment probably has a lot to do with the long-ago origins of the project as a spec script written by Almereyda in his early twenties and optioned at that time for Jerzy Skolimowski. The screenplay has been heavily revised using subsequently published material and the accumulated insights of what is clearly a lifelong obsession; the director now identifies the films of Derek Jarman, the novels of Henry James and certain episodes of Drunk History as key influences, all of which are readily identifiable once you see Tesla.

The unorthodox mix also seems destined to make it commercially challenging, though the brilliant, intensely contained performance of Ethan Hawke in the title role, losing himself in an introverted man accurately described as living in his head, will be a strong selling point. Ditto a whip-smart characterization, full of both cunning humor and gravitas, from Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison, who scoffed at Tesla's AC ideas during the latter's brief time in his employ.

That period was covered recently in The Current War, a drama stubbornly lacking in electricity, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison and featured an underused Nicholas Hoult as a Tesla relegated to the margins. Here, the Eastern European immigrant gets his due, for both his considerable achievements and his overreaching failures. But the film also digs into the solitude of the restless thinker, ingeniously employing as narrator Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), a woman whose unreciprocated love for Tesla doesn't cloud her perceptive read on the self-sabotaging pride that existed alongside his heightened abilities.

The daughter of banking magnate J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), Anne is first seen roller-skating around the marble halls of the family's Madison Avenue mansion with Tesla. (Carl Sprague's production design and Sofia Mesicek's costumes work magic on what appears to be a limited budget.) Her opening voiceover relates his revelatory childhood experience of seeing sparks shoot from the back of his black kitten as he stroked its fur, a memory that came back to him while watching lightning crack the sky during a thunderstorm. That prompted him to wonder: "Is nature a gigantic cat, and if so, who strokes its back?"

In a film with a playful knack for connecting the past to the present and future, Anne frequently flips open a laptop and Googles various famous figures and developments as they surface in the drama, thus allowing Almereyda the dual track of reflecting on how we receive history today while at the same time examining the impact of events in their time. In similarly cheeky fashion, Edison scrolls through his smartphone screen at a bar.

Anne is a wry observer particularly of the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, with the former's old-world European reserve chafing against the latter's American brashness and vice versa. Tesla appears quietly appalled by Edison's greed, his fingers in so many developmental pies that he was simply too busy to give the scientific and mathematical calculations behind AC the serious consideration to make him understand that it could work.

Tesla quotes the proverb "Nothing grows in the shadow of an oak" to convey Edison's disinclination to encourage anyone else's endeavors. His buck-passing response to the botched first attempt at execution by electric chair — a scene hauntingly played by Blake DeLong as hatchet murderer William Kemmler — offers further evidence of how recklessly Edison bounced from one project to the next.

In an amusing imagined interlude, Tesla responds to the insulting dismissal of his research by assaulting Edison with an ice-cream cone. Later, Anne conjures an 1893 encounter between the two men in Chicago, after Tesla had teamed with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) to light a World's Fair pavilion. Edison admits he was wrong about both AC and Tesla, before Anne reveals that this apology never happened.

But it makes her wonder, from a wistful distance, what Tesla might have achieved with someone of influence and financial means squarely in his corner. Westinghouse, a jolly, avuncular figure in Gaffigan's engaging performance, could only take him so far, and Anne's father capped his financial stake in Tesla's research into the wireless transmission of energy after his ideas became more impractical.

Even when Almereyda is marking out the stages of Tesla's life in a more orderly manner, there's invigorating experimentation involved, with DP Sean Price Williams often shooting the subjects from inquisitive low angles against theatrical backdrops — photographs, paintings, period commercial art. And composer John Paesano's eclectic score shifts from lush symphonic sounds through anxious electronica and even into throbbing techno once legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) enters Tesla's orbit, strutting like a catwalk model and dripping soignée sensuality, whether she's onstage in a swooning death scene or alone with the inventor, speaking to him of love.

Tesla's total lack of fluency in that language and his fear of intimacy gives the movie a beautiful melancholy underlay, whether reflecting on his own emotional isolation or assessing its impact on women like Morgan and Bernhardt. The latter virtually throws herself at his feet, creating a moving moment as she basks in adoring applause at the end of a performance, her sorrowful eyes searching the crowd for Tesla and registering his absence. Indeed, the closest depiction of a loving two-way connection in the pic is Tesla's friendship with his sad-eyed assistant Anital Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, superb), another European whose diffidence is a bad fit for go-getter American enterprise.

Is all the science 100 percent accessible for the uninitiated? Probably not, but that's not the point. Almereyda isn't aiming to illuminate all the details of the inventor's work, rather to capture the infinite scope of his curiosity about technological innovations that suggest he was dreaming of the world in which we now live.

The degree to which the Tesla story syncs with Almereyda's abiding fascinations is clear in every frame of this contemplative, questioning, soulfully philosophical film. That also applies to the way the director populates it with alumni from his previous work — Hawke and MacLachlan from Hamlet; Gaffigan and Keshawarz from Experimenter; even Lois Smith, the heart of Marjorie Prime, turns up briefly in a wordless cameo as a New York society grande dame who does the honors in an electricity demonstration.

Hewson (The Knick) stands in for Almereyda and the audience in the tender balance of admiration and regret — in terms of both personal frustration and missed opportunities far greater than her own — that Anne brings to her assessment of the subject. And Hawke, who also collaborated with the director on his wild swing at taming Shakespeare's Cymbeline, does wonders at taking a recessive character and breathing brooding magnetism into him that keeps us glued.

Production companies: Millennium Media, in association with Passage Pictures
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan, Josh Hamilton, Lucy Walters, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, James Urbaniak, Ian Lithgow, Blake DeLong
Director-screenwriter: Michael Almereyda
Producers: Uri Singer, Michael Almereyda, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman, Isen Robbins, Per Melita
Executive producers: Avi Lerner, Jeffrey Greenstein, Jonathan Yunger, Rob Van Norden, Trevor Short, Doron Weber, Jeff Rice, Lee Broda, Rami Jaber, Qais Qandil, Jeff Gum, Elijah Long
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Production designer: Carl Sprague
Costume designer: Sofija Mesicek
Music: John Paesano
Editor: Kathryn J. Schubert
Visual effects supervisor: Jonathan Podwill
Casting: Billy Hopkins, Ashley Ingram
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

102 minutes