Ethan Hawke is something of a national treasure, and correctly so. A charismatic leading man with four Oscar nominations, he’s a trusted actor who established himself as a teen star with Explorers and Dead Poet’s Society. As writer and director, his The Hottest State is one of the great underrated debuts, and he’s seeminly able to play anything from Django Reinhart to a space pimp in Valerian. Director Michael Almereyda previously had him sketch out a very modern Hamlet, reciting ‘To be or not to be…’ while indecisively perusing the aisles of a video-shop; reuniting the two for a biopic of Nikolai Tesla was always going to be an original proposition.
But first, you have to adjust your expectations; this isn’t a straight biopic, yo mama’s Tesla, and so on. As soon as characters start whipping out Macbooks and googling themselves, the intention of the film-makers becomes clearer. We’re talking about an artistic phantasmagoria, and Hawke is up for everything, finishing in full costume as Tesla, belting out a karaoke version of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. It’s not hard to spot the historical anachronism, but that’s not the kind of authenticity we’re aiming for here.
We’ve been over the course with Tesla quite recently, with David Bowie in The Prestige, and then again in The Current War; details about his work with Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) take second place here to Tesla the man. And to Tesla’s girls, which is to say his female relationships, which take up a larger part of the story. This provides a platform for strong female performances, with Rebecca Dayan striking as Sarah Bernhardt, and in particular Eve Hewson as Anne Morgan, daughter of JP. The erratic Tesla is a source of some frustration to her, and his other-worldliness threatens to derail his potential as a scientific giant and a captain of industry. Tesla’s insistence that he’s receiving signals from Mars suggests to Anne that her guy is somewhat tuned to the moon, and his dalliance with Bernhardt doesn’t help.
There’s a welcome dash of Ken Russell spice here, with star and director delivering an irreverent biopic that’s less concerned with the when-and-how than speculating about the why; this is a portrait of a man who can’t make life bend fast enough to the slew of ideas in his imagination. There are other Tesla films and biographies available, and it would be churlish to deny Almereyda and Hawke their own version. Striking sparks throughout, this is an entertaining, if theatrical version of the great man, played with some energy by Hawke with roller skates on.
Tesla is available on Digital Download 21 September from Lionsgate UK
Thanks to Witchfinder PR and Lionsgate for advance access.