Ethan Hawke, Kyle McLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan, Donnie Keshawarz
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…a kaleidoscopic, almost mesmeric cinematic concoction…
When it comes to cult figures, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) burns very, very bright. A visionary inventor principally plying his trade in the field of electricity, Tesla was also a deeply eccentric and singular figure, cutting against the grain of popular thought and lighting out on his own at every turn, often to his own detriment. Much has been written about this strange, mysterious man, and he’s been name-checked in just about every corner of pop culture, forcing major plot points in everything from Doctor Who to MacGyver, and scoring big screen lionisation courtesy of Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) and Jim Jarmusch and The White Stripes (Coffee & Cigarettes).
With Nikola Tesla as the topline, you’d hardly expect a Gandhi or Bohemian Rhapsody-style biopic, but even with that as the driver, writer, director and producer Michael Almereyda deliriously and entertainingly pushes the boat very, very far out from shore with Tesla. That said, the facts are all there, and the nuts and bolts of Tesla’s strange life are all in place. A truly curious late-1980s-1990’s-emergent filmmaker, Almereyda has always flown with a deeply experimental flair, boasting a canon of true originals like Twister (no, not that Twister), Another Girl Another Planet, Nadja, Experimenter, The Eternal and Marjorie Prime. Unapologetically non-mainstream, Almereyda applies his characteristic eye for the unusual to the world of Nikola Tesla with glorious aplomb. Helped immeasurably by the great (great) Ethan Hawke in the title role (the pair worked together previously on the wonderfully wacked out Shakespeare adaptations Hamlet and Cymbeline), his Tesla is a bizarre but compelling distillation of a strange life lived fully.
Belying an obvious lack of budget, Almereyda employs process screens, background paintings, to-camera narration and explanations, and cheap-but-bang-on special effects to tell the story of Tesla’s burning passion to change the world with his inventions, as well as his conflicted personal relationships and professional dust-ups. Tesla’s run-ins with towering figures like Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan), George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), and J.P Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) are all wonderfully played, while his romance with Morgan’s daughter, Anne Morgan (rising actress – and daughter of U2’s Bono – Eve Hewson), is surprisingly sweet, though hardly drawn in the expected forms. It all wraps together to form a kaleidoscopic, almost mesmeric cinematic concoction – Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is wilfully weird but also undeniably pure and honest, which makes it pretty much the perfect testament to its luminous subject.