Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir-scr Michael Almereyda
prd Michael Almereyda, Uri Singer, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman, Isen Robbins
with Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan, Donnie Keshawarz, Josh Hamilton, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Rebecca Dayan, Lucy Walters, John Palladino, Hannah Gross, James Urbaniak
release US 21.Aug.20
20/US 1h42

maclachlan gaffigan moss-bacharach

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hawke and hewson
Filmmaker Michael Almereyda takes an offbeat approach to the life of Nikola Tesla. It's an impressionistic biopic, shifting between perspectives while using documentary inserts and more audacious flourishes. This makes the film both theatrical and internalised, artfully tracing the life of a man who was far ahead of his time and sidelined in history as an immigrant. It's also a remarkable depiction of the age-old clash between idealism and capitalism.
In 1884 New York, the introverted Serbian-born Nikola (Hawke) is working for Thomas Edison (MacLachlan), who uses Tesla's expertise but brushes aside his genius. So Nikola strikes off with his old Hungarian friend Szigeti (Moss-Bacharach), contributing key innovations to both Edison and his rival George Westinghouse (Gaffigan). But they're far more adept at salesmanship. Over the years, he also develops a friendship with Anne (Hewson), daughter of financier JP Morgan (Keshawarz). And over the years, he needs to sell off most of his patents just to keep working on new innovations.
The film is wryly narrated by Anne in a postmodern style, looking from today's perspective. The intention seems to be to correct history, reminding viewers that Tesla's inventions and discoveries were the true source of the electrical revolution. The narrative has an audacious, freeform structure, including events that Anne admits never happened alongside glimpses of modern tech more than a century too early. The production design is terrific in this sense, bringing the period to vivid life while tapping into Tesla's extraordinary mind.

Performances are earthy and natural, with Hawke playing Tesla as the calm in a storm, a brilliant man who doesn't want to be a celebrity. But he's annoyed to be continually overlooked. There's a blinding array of side characters, many who appear in a single scene. But the more colourful people around him are very well-played by adept scene-stealers like MacLachlan and Gaffigan. Hewson has terrific presence, providing a hint of a romantic interest opposite a man whose whole life is his work. And there's more female seduction from Dayan's enjoyably languid Sarah Bernhardt.

This is a fascinating depiction of capitalistic bluster with all the wrong priorities stealing attention from what really matters. Almereyda makes sure to ground everything in history, cleverly adding actual photographs to the mix. So as the film chronicles Tesla's momentous inventions, the technology is made more interesting with surreal filmmaking flourishes. The movie is full of detail, but dwells instead on more visceral feelings. It's an approach that sometimes feels too esoteric, but it's involving and ultimately moving.

cert 12 themes, violence 12.Aug.20

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