Cinema Review: Tesla | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, September 20th, 2020  

Tesla

Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Michael Almereyda

Aug 18, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Although Nikola Tesla was renowned for energy innovation, Ethan Hawke’s new portrayal of him is anything but electric. And that’s not a criticism. Instead, Hawke plays Tesla in this film of the same name as if he’s just been shocked by the currents he’s studying. It’s a perpetual flinch and shudder at the business politics, economics, turn of the century romantic courtship, and other encroaching systems that bewilder him, even as he masters physics and science, and invents the alternating current (AC) induction motor, all with comparative ease.

Aside from a climactic breaking of the fourth wall that is sure to leave audiences floored, and a handful of breakthroughs in his laboratory, the demeanor of Hawke’s Tesla is droopier than his mustache. The genius’ neurosis and introversion, in Hawke’s hands, render the eponymous protagonist thoroughly relatable in this surreally artsy, convention flouting film helmed by Michael Almereyda (Hawke’s collaborator on their modernized take on Hamlet back in 2000). Your heartstrings will be pulled taut while rooting for the flawed, overwhelmed Tesla as he faces off against his pompous gasbag nemesis Thomas Edison (played with aplomb by Kyle MacLachlan, another Hamlet alum that’s sadly underutilized in this new film).

Equally moving: Tesla’s struggles to connect with Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan). For her, Tesla’s brilliance instantly shines through his social awkwardness, though she seems as intrigued by his peculiarities as his talent. That could be chalked up to the same empathy Anne Morgan would employ in her lengthy philanthropic career, [https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/triangle-fire-anne-morgan/] which isn’t explored in this film. Nevertheless, director Almereyda doesn’t give Morgan short shrift, instead filming the opening scene between her and Tesla on roller skates from the waist up, until they appear to be gliding in defiance of gravity. Another early scene where Hewson breaks the fourth wall will make audiences sit up in their chairs and smile at the zany panache of it all. Almereyda’s occasional use of obsolete, silent movie style backdrops gives the movie further artsy flourishes. Even if his metaphors and visual tricks zip straight over your head, the images will stay seared in your memory.

Akin to their attempts to modernize Hamlet back in 2000, Hawke and Almereyda usher Tesla into the twenty-first century. Some viewers may be put off by its strangeness. But open-minded audiences will be more than intrigued by this inventive movie about an inventive man.

Author rating: 7/10

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