If, when you think of Tesla, you see modern electric cars, you’re at the wrong movie. Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), the late-19th century inventor, is rival to the more well-known Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). Their rivalry is well captured in this docudrama as they tussle for the title of the greatest inventor of the age. Fiancée Anne (Eve Hewson) guides us in voiceover on the complexities of electromagnetism and AC versus DC currents. In Colorado, Tesla flirts, Dr Frankenstein-like, with harnessing lightning and on, “experiments that have never been duplicated or fully understood,” (a bit like the plot).
He also flirts with famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) and dreams of “photographing thought”, then announces that “alien life is a statistical certainty”. There’s a lot to get your teeth into in this story. The acting is persuasive and the cinematography (Sean Price Williams) has a lush sheen. There are enough picture hats and moustaches to please any costume drama fan.
Things go awry, however, partly though the excruciating and glacial slowness of the action. And there are a raft of baffling and self-indulgent postmodern conceits. Anne compares the few images of Nikola on Google Images with the hundreds of Edison as, in period blouse, she consults her Apple laptop. The action sometimes takes place in front of painted theatrical backdrops. Edison checks his mobile phone. And, most troubling of all, Tesla does a startling karaoke rendition of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World‘, the Tears for Fears 1985 pop hit.
Yes, maybe we are all now living in an interconnected world that Silicon Valley poster boy Tesla dreamed of. But so what? Tesla says, “I want to set the world on fire”, something that this movie signally fails to do.
On Digital Download now from Lionsgate UK