The plot covers Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) during his peak of creativity, from the 1880s through the dawn of the 20th Century. We see him as a man of contrasts: Tesla is withdrawn and sullen, yet possessed of quiet confidence. His taciturn personality belies the volcanic activity of the mind behind it. (Indeed, he tells a startled acquaintance that it feels as if his brain is “burning.”) Tesla’s thoughts propel him above and beyond his own time, when energy and information will someday hurtle across the world at light speed.
During this time of discovery, we see Tesla interact with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), his natural rival. Unlike the aloof Tesla, Edison brims with charisma and shrewd salesmanship. He knows how to turn the world onto his inventions, while stirring fear around his competitors. Tesla briefly works for Edison, until former chafes under the latter’s haughty antagonism. Once Tesla strikes out on his own, the two men battle it out for who gets to supply power to the planet.
Despite his prickliness, Tesla has an aura of mystery that pulls two women into his orbit. Anne Morgan (Even Hewson), daughter of J.P. (Donnie Keshawarz), finds his defiant indefinability fascinating. She might even love him for it. That’s assuming, of course, that Tesla can summon up any interest for romantic companionship. (A spiritual guru urges him to remain chaste, for the sake of his inventions.) Meanwhile, a mutual attraction develops between Tesla and the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), who displays a similar spark of genius. Both women attempt to discover the man Tesla conceals beneath his outer shell.
In an interesting twist, Hewson’s Anne narrates the film. This actually makes more sense than you might think, as Tesla would be far too introverted to supply any meaningful exposition about himself. As such, we get much of our perspective on the man through her eyes: Tesla’s story is one of profound vision and achievement, but with a swath of sadness running across its center. There are moments where he seems almost pitiable, as a revolutionary destined to be misunderstood in his own lifetime.
As Tesla, Hawke imbues his performance with carefully measured intensity and an underrated ability for understatement. Hawke’s skill as a natural actor is apparent to anyone who’s seen the Before trilogy, but here he hides a lot of his skill in plain sight. Much of what makes Nikola Tesla so compelling as a man can be found in the hole cards he chooses never to play: He would rather be chaste than risk love–invoking his inventions seems like a convenient excuse–and tuck what truly motivates him away in some cerebral attic. Tesla seems like a man we’re not fully destined to know–an unsolvable riddle. To play him requires carefully meted doses of emotional current, and Hawke absolutely nails it.
Around Hawke, the supporting cast turns in sturdy work. Hewson radiates warmth as Anne Morgan, a necessary counterbalance to Tesla’s perpetual chilliness. MacLachlan’s Edison fills every room with his genteel bluster, displaying the gift for social savvy that Tesla lacks. If Anne represents the potential of a lasting partnership, Dayan plays Bernhardt as the ultimate in free-spirited temptation: She’s embodies the emotional and sensual exploration he chooses to avoid.
Tesla will probably draw you in with the magnetism of its subject. With that being said, we should discuss the film’s key flaw: Despite many effective scenes, it often tumbles over its own cleverness. Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s decision to pepper the film with modern gadgetry will alienate some viewers, as will the inclusion of an 80s new wave anthem in the final act. I can’t say whether these decisions reflect extreme ballsiness or insecurity, but whatever the case, they don’t work.
At the same time, that’s Tesla for you. He was alienating. He was difficult. But he was, at last, resolutely himself. Almereyda and company go off on these fanciful tangents, and invite you along. Or not. I didn’t love the image of Edison taking a barstool selfie, but I found enough grip in most of the rest of Tesla to stay hooked. It features a compelling actor as one of history’s most compelling people, and still merits a recommendation on that basis alone.
102 min. PG-13.