2020, PG-13, 102 min. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan, Rebecca Dayan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Haley Elise Pehrson, Lucy Walters, Luna Jokic, Dan Bittner.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 21, 2020

If only. That is the story of Nikola Tesla, the man who dreamed the 20th century into existence, and who was cast aside by the corporate forces that enabled but never understood the genius. If only he'd read the contracts, if only he'd made up with Thomas Edison after their famous rift, if only he'd filed his patents earlier, if only, if only, of only. And if only he'd found love, as new biopic Tesla proposes as one of the losses in his life.

The lost love is Anne Morgan, daughter of the investor J.P. Morgan and both narrator and character in this fantastical and formal recounting of the life of the father of AC electricity. It's not been long since the tragically under-rated and underseen The Current War - Director's Cut, which put him as the tool deployed and dismissed by captains of industry as they felt fit. Almereyda's biopic is its reverse, trying to find the soul of the Serbian-born inventor, and in this Ethan Hawke is given space like no actor since Petar Božović in the 1980 Yugoslavian biopic The Secret of Nikola Tesla.

It's a challenge: so much is known of Tesla, but so little is clear. As Morgan – played with heartbreaking and heartbroken grace by The Knick's Hewson – notes, look him up on Google and you'll see the same four photographs, over and over again. He's an enigma, a cipher, too often the charismatic bit player in his own story, like David Bowie's memorable but fleeting turn in The Prestige. Hawke finds him in details and tics, a man never able to bask in success because all that happened was he'd been proved right again, and he was off on another obsession. Meanwhile Anne recounts how close he came to recognition, and how often it evaded him.

There's a quiet wildness to Almereyda's version of Tesla's life. True, the Marjorie Prime director succumbs to the same magnetic pull as so many other biographers, looking at his American years up to the failure of his grandest experiment, the pioneering broadcast system at Wardenclyffe Tower. But while the era recounted is now a convention, the way it is tackled is far from repetitive. It's rebellious within an era of restraint, bathing Tesla in glowing pastel shades in a time of mahogany, leather, and steam. Whereas Ken Russell in Lisztomania played the past like the present, Anne sees through the fourth wall as the daughter of 19th century wealth. Historically accurate recreations are interwoven with moments on a stage with back projections. It's all summed up in the year's strangest coda (Hawke mumbling through a karaoke version of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"), Tesla remains wry yet humorless, emotionally shackled while intellectually unbound. Of course our present doesn't shock them, Almereyda posits. They dreamed it into existence.

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Tesla, Michael Almereyda, Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan, Rebecca Dayan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Haley Elise Pehrson, Lucy Walters, Luna Jokic, Dan Bittner

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