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Every historical drama involves some element of pure invention: maybe it happened like this? Perhaps she said it like that? But Michael Almereyda’s biopic of the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943), is rather more open about this process than most. Ethan Hawke, who also starred in the director’s contemporary New York-set Hamlet 20 years ago, plays the under-appreciated visionary. Now, Tesla has a clean energy company named in his honour, is thought to have predicted the internet age, and has been played on screen several times, most recently by Nicholas Hoult in The Current War. But he died in poverty after alienating his wealthy investors and consequently struggling to obtain the funding to realise his grand visions.
The contrast between this experience and that of Tesla’s erstwhile employer and sometime rival, Thomas Alva Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), the Great American usually credited with invention of the electric light bulb, suggests itself as an obvious dramatic framework for a biopic. But not this biopic. Almereyda is more interested in anachronism as a metaphor for a man fully out of step with his era; at one point Edison is seen passing time at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair by scrolling through his iPhone. (Curiously, though, the film is a stickler for period detail when it comes to the dimly lit drawing rooms where most scenes take place.)
Some amusingly arch performances from MacLachlan and Eve Hewson as Anne Morgan, daughter of the banker JP Morgan, draw out the humour but, as the anachronisms pile up, any attempt to follow the film’s biographical through-thread is frustrated. Intentionally, for sure, since Almereyda is aiming at a deeper biographical truth. To watch Tesla the film is to admire its ambition while regretting its follies. Much like Tesla the man, perhaps?
•Tesla is released on digital formats on 21 September
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Tesla review – portrait of an inventor out of step with his time | Biopics