Ethan Hawke stars as the eccentric scientist in a biopic that refuses to play by the rules but sometimes gets lost in its own design
While there is no exact blueprint for the biopic, films shaped around one person’s life can often fall victim to the same tropes. It can be a paint-by-numbers retelling, often noticeably congratulatory, and hardly revelatory. Michael Almereyda's Tesla isn’t such a film, but its differences don’t make it particularly successful either.
We follow Ethan Hawke as the Serbian-American inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla, building his career in the US alongside Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) before forging his own path in the world of electrical engineering. Except we don’t follow Tesla too closely. Instead his story is explored via an external narrator, Anne – one of Tesla’s love interests.
She tells us his story firmly from the present, explaining playfully how some things she’s saying might have happened, or maybe not, and – since there are so few Google results for him – we’ll just have to go along with what she says. It’s certainly an inventive way to broach the material, but often feels like a clumsy way of substituting emotional depth in the performances by highlighting just how unique the storytelling framework is.
It’s surprising to see such a chilly lead performance, too, especially considering Hawke’s impressive back catalogue. Here is the man of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, who brought searing pathos to Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, who really seems like he can do anything. But as Tesla, an anxious frown is frozen between Hawke’s eyes, and his characterisation is fuelled by neurosis as the governing feeling, with little else to hold onto.
Such stoicism seems to make sense, considering how little we know about Tesla. But the stylistic choices then seem to overpower this man’s incredible story. Tesla feels like a biopic about the inventor’s inventions, rather than the decisions and events that led the man towards becoming an inventor.
There are glimmers of light, in a face-off between Hawke and McLachlan involving an ice cream cone, in Anne’s narration that sometimes veers towards a PowerPoint presentation, in a jarring but oddly endearing karaoke rendition from Hawke. It’s certainly not a formulaic biopic, but it's still too puzzling to feel like an authentic portrait of such an ingenious person’s life. Then again, as Anne fondly recalls of Tesla: “He was always looking ahead. Projecting himself into the future.” Maybe we just need to catch up.
Tesla is now available to stream on various streaming services.Where to watch