Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Set in Amsterdam in the 1630s, the costume drama Tulip Fever is about the romance between a rich man’s wife and the artist he hires to paint them. This story takes place amid a massive boom in the tulip market that causes people to pay exorbitant sums for them (the subplot about tulips, the only unique thing about the film, is never made completely necessary. Unfortunately, it could have been excised entirely without taking anything significant away from the main story).
At the beginning of the film, Cornelis Sandvoort (a dependably solid Christoph Waltz (a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Supporting actor)), desperate for an heir after the death of his wife and three young children, takes Sophia (Alicia Vikander, an Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress for 2016’s The Danish Girl) away from a monastery and marries her. Three years later, he is disappointed that she has been unable to conceive and she has grown bored because she does not love him. Anxious to create a legacy for himself that will live on after he is dead, he hires a struggling artist, Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan from last month’s sci-fi spectacle Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), to paint their portrait. Soon, Sophia and Jan begin an affair. Meanwhile, the Sandvoort’s maid, Maria (Holliday Grainger), plans her future with her lover, Willem (Jack O’Connell). These two stories intersect in a pretty ridiculous scheme that takes up the majority of the film.
The best thing to be said about the film is that it brought together one heck of a cast. Waltz, Vikander, DeHaan and Grainger are all good in the main roles. Then you add in O’Connell, seven-time Academy Award nominee Dame Judi Dench as an abbess, Tom Hollander as a helpful doctor, comedian Zach Galifianakis (seemingly miscast, but fine in an underwritten comic-relief role) as Jan’s drunk friend and Cara Delevingne (DeHaan’s costar in Valerian) in a small role that did not seem particularly important to the story. The acting is certainly good enough to keep the action moving.
Unfortunately, the story itself is not engaging. The characters are neither interesting nor likable and the romance that causes Sophia to risk everything is completely devoid of passion. Her plan to get what she wants did hold my interest because I was entertained by how absurdly goofy it was. But, sadly, as silly as everything is, the situation is played completely straight. Since there is no urgency to carry the ludicrousness of the drama, Tulip Fever wilts.
In addition to all of the Oscar nominees and winners in the cast, Tulip Fever (98 minutes minus the end credits) was co-written by Tom Stoppard, an Academy award winner in 1998 for Best Original Screenplay for Best Picture Winner Shakespeare in Love. That was also a period romance, but had a joy and passion to it that are completely missing here. This film was probably originally planned to be an award’s season darling just like Shakespeare was. If it was a better film, it would probably be a decent bet to snag some nominations just because of the pedigree of its cast and co-writer. However, the plans for this film have changed substantially since it was first announced.
Tulip Fever, based on a bestselling 1999 novel of the same name by Deborah Moggach (who also co-wrote the screenplay), has quite the storied history. The much abbreviated version is this (taken from much more detailed accounts that can be found on-line, specifically a really good one on Vulture): the book was immediately optioned. After an aborted attempt in 2004, it finally began production in 2013. Filming was uneventful and it began test screenings in November of 2014. Since then, it has been pulled from the release schedule at least four different times and there have been rumors of numerous reshoots.
This kind of tumultuous path to multiplexes usually means the film is a disaster. Tulip Fever is not a disaster. It is a dull and passionless romance featuring uninvolving characters, but it is pretty to look at and features fine performances from its talented cast.
Tulip Fever is not the colossal mess its nearly three year journey to the screen would have people predict. Instead, it is an average and easily forgettable period piece.
2¼ out of 5
Alicia Vikander as Sophia Sandvoort
Christoph Waltz as Cornelis Sandvoort
Holliday Grainger as Maria
Dane DeHaan as Jan Van Loos
Judi Dench as Abbess
Zach Galifianakis as Gerrit
Jack O’Connell as Willem Brok
Tom Hollander as Dr. Sorgh
Cara Delevingne as Annetje
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Screenplay by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard