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This unconventional biopic of prolific inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) has sparks of brilliance but – much like the man himself – doesn’t deliver when it needs to. Rather than following him from cradle to grave, the film focuses on the decade following Tesla’s emigration from Croatia to America, the triumph of his system of alternating current, and the myriad disappointments that followed, as his visionary inventions failed to take off.
Our narrator is the charismatic philanthropist Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of famed American financier John Pierpoint Morgan – dressed in Victorian finery, yet Googling information for us on her laptop. Her unreliable narration is a consistent high point of the film, bringing energy to otherwise congested scenes of contract negotiation and patent filing. As an onscreen character, though – befriending and trying to nurture Tesla’s genius – she has less charm, constrained by repetitive dialogue about the incompatibility of idealism and profitability.
Ethan Hawke is given the Herculean task of playing a tense, introverted outsider who nevertheless has chemistry with the rest of the cast, and he partly succeeds. He plays Tesla as self-assured but haunted, speaking in an almost inaudible whisper and never fully clarifying whether he is motivated by scientific integrity or ego. As a result, his rivalry with xenophobic Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) is too restrained. MacLachlan’s campier turn suits the film’s offbeat tone but it never quite connects with what Hawke is doing; Tesla’s relationships with Anne Morgan and famous actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) are more convincing.
The further the film strays from a straightforward biopic the more intriguing it becomes: an ice-cream fight, epic montage sequences of Hawke standing in front of shoddy projections – these are wonderfully absurd. Tesla’s interiority is nowhere better felt than in wordless moments of isolation, fastidiously wiping the germs off his own silverware or staring out at a screen projection of a Colorado landscape.
Best of all is the touching moment after Tesla tries to convince J.P. Morgan that he is capable of developing a machine that photographs thoughts, when he slinks off to sing a karaoke rendition of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule The World. However, these moments are too few and far between to build momentum and the film as a whole is little more than an intriguing disappointment.