By Elias Savada.
Ethan Hawke elevates the role as the lead actor in Tesla, but he never really gets to show much range….”
When I last commented on filmmaker Michael Almereyda, it was about the favorable impression I had watching Marjorie Prime (2017), his sci-fi-without-being-science-fictiony examination of artificial intelligence. Boy, I wish I could say I enjoyed his latest film as much. Or even some.
Almereyda wrote and directed this latest historical retelling of the highlights and unusual times of eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla. The noted futurist got a more coherent, less artsy scrutiny in last year’s The Current War: Director’s Cut, which covered much of the same ground, taking note of the movers and shakers responsible for the birth of the electrical age. Nicholas Hoult played the misunderstood visionary in that picture, but as second fiddle to Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). Ethan Hawke elevates the role as the lead actor in Tesla, but he never really gets to show much range, other than barely excited or just plain dour. Not quite sour puss, but extremely sullen. A very controlled performance, in a fact-filled but vapid story, with Almereyda’s story hopping from one benchmark moment to another. I never felt the dots were well connected in his very theatrical interpretation.
Kyle MacLachlan portrays Edison, who briefly employed Tesla in 1884, as the film’s arrogant heavy, and I half expected Edison to come out shooting electricity from his hands. Tempers are instead cooled via dueling soft serve vanilla ice cream cones, whether against Tesla or Westinghouse (an amusingly looking Jim Gaffigan). MacLaughlan aloofly handles the Wizard of Menlo Park’s abhorrence of capital punishment and the scheming done surrounding history’s first execution by an electric chair.
Of course, it’s a 20-year reunion celebrated by Almereyda, Hawke, and MacLaughlan, for the writer-director’s contemporary New York City-based adaptation of Hamlet. Hawke was the “prince” and MacLaughlan his Claudius. Like Tesla, the critics were split. One blurb read “Stiff performances fail to produce any tension onscreen,” and that can be applied to Tesla as well.
The film’s narrator is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), youngest daughter of steel baron J.P. “Pierpont” Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), who hired Edison to install electricity in the family’s lavish New York City mansion. Her character has the semblance of an educated, lightly liberated world view, but her narration is read mostly without any emotion, as if reading from an encyclopedia or Wikipedia entry. Anne’s attempts to influence the Serbian inventor are weak gestures barely suggesting a romantic relationship. That ain’t gonna happen – Tesla is an emotional eunuch. Perhaps that’s why Anne’s narrator’s voice never once calls him by his first name.
The film ostensibly starts on a Monday in New York City. August 11, 1884 to be precise, at the Edison Machine Works on the Lower East Side. It’s a dimly lit structure where Tesla, Edison, and others are chit-chatting in the dark, lit only by candles and lanterns. That darkness – Sean Williams was the cinematographer – does not lift much through most of the film’s 102 minutes. It’s an odd way to present a story about crafters of artificial light, but definitely the imprint it’s director likes to leave. I don’t recall any wide shots either, as the film is very much a series of chamber pieces loosely strung together. Daylight is at a premium, and, for the most part, the few glimpses of it are diffused through windows and bounced off walls and ceilings (just like some of the shadows that appear briefly throughout).
There are no true exterior locations until near the film’s end. The numerous outside locales never exhibit any semblance of cinematic reality, including a one view of what might be Niagara Falls. It’s a still drawing (other scenes use photographs, one used a motion picture) used as a large backdrop, with awkward side lighting, as Tesla, in soaked rain gear and a whiff of water spray swirling around him, peruses the chill in the air. I expect most folks will get frustrated by the film’s most unusual production design (by Carl Sprague). Recreations flow, as theatrical backgrounds, on most landscapes.
At least twice Almereyda invents history, then “corrects” it. The first version is often fanciful, but after the narration suggests “This is pretty surely not how it happened,” the scene repeats, presumably closer to the actual events.
I also haven’t mentioned the film’s numerous anachronisms. Anne Morgan can be spotted using a MacBook Pro as she breaks the film’s fourth wall and compares google search results for Edison and Tesla. One scene has Tesla doing parlor tricks with neon florescent bulbs (with a guest cameo by Lois Smith, his Marjorie Prime star), while crosscutting Edison being grilled about the amount of electricity used for capital punishment. Or you might spot the vintage 1990s Coca-Cola, or a modern day vacuum cleaner.
More tomfoolery surrounds a subplot inferring a presumed affair between Tesla and renowned French actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Dayan offers a tidbit in the press material, “Sarah Bernhardt’s relationship with Tesla is not entirely confirmed as a reality,” although both were at the fair. Yeah, so was Annie Oakley.
Other sequences cover Tesla’s experimental station in Colorado Springs in 1899, to test the use of high-voltage, high-frequency electricity in wireless power transmission. And his 1901 stay in Wardenclyffe on the north shore of Long Island, about 70 miles from New York City, with more experiments that pretty much just drained a couple hundred thousand bucks from Pierpont’s ample pocket book. Tesla began to believe Martians were trying to communicate with him.
The film’s final moments transcend everything that has gone before and sends you wondering WTF Almereyda is thinking. Tesla Sings!
Is there an epitaph worthy for Tesla – or one I really care about after watching Almereyda’s “as bizarrely interpreted by” presentation? Anne Morgan’s character mentions that maybe Tesla overreached. Tesla certainly did.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).