Despite being an endless source of fascination for artists, genius can be a difficult subject to explore well, particularly when it involves a real person. Exceptionality both draws us in and, by definition, keeps us at a distance; the best cinematic portrayals craft a delicate balance between insight and elusiveness, creating something we can admire but never fully understand. Historical geniuses rarely live up to this artistic ideal, making the truly biographical film, which seeks to illuminate a life, a fairly inhospitable environment for exploring it. When approaching a real-life genius, filmmakers must choose between fact and fiction— do they devalue the history to capture something more profound, or dispel the myth and reveal the human being beneath it?
Director Michael Almereyda chooses the former for his new film, Tesla, flaunting convention to depict the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla as a fully formed enigma. Officially, the plot focuses on two pivotal periods in Tesla’s adult life— his battle with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) for electrical supply dominance and his later experiments in search of wireless communication— but Almereyda is more interested in capturing his presence than telling his story. Scenes drift by like snippets of time, and Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), doubling as romantic interest and disruptive narrator, steps in from time to time with facts to help us connect them.
While Almereyda’s decision to disregard the biopic formula feels like the right one, his ideas in execution don’t live up to their promise on paper. This film is full of choices designed to prevent audience immersion, and while this can be a valuable tool for making us think instead of feel, Tesla seems to alienate us to no end. Openly invented conversations and the obvious use of backdrops point to the film’s artificiality, but there’s little effort to comment on Tesla’s mythic status in popular culture. The occasional intrusion of modern technology in the otherwise 19th-century setting, which could have been a creative way to explore a visionary intellect, plays as just another fictional element and is thus robbed of its power. The bottom line: Tesla, despite a creative approach to filmmaking behind it, struggles to be interesting.
I believe that Hawke’s magnetic performance in the lead role, perhaps more easily read as an exception to this failure of engagement, sits at the core of the film’s problems. Hawke’s Tesla is quiet, intense, and seems to possess his own gravitational force; those around him are destined to be satellites, caught in his orbit but always kept at a distance. His interactions with other characters (all also well performed, I should add) show this magnetism in action, but provide little access into the inner workings of his personality. In other words, Tesla’s genius is all elusiveness and no insight, as if its presence is enough to constitute its exploration. You’ll finish Tesla with neither a solid grasp of the real man nor a better conceptual understanding of his genius— is it so surprising that you’ll be equally unengaged while it’s on?