Tulip Fever (2017)

  • Time: 107 min
  • Genre: Drama | Romance
  • Director: Justin Chadwick
  • Cast: Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Dane DeHaan, Jack O’Connell


In 17th Century Amsterdam, an orphaned girl Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is forcibly married to a rich and powerful merchant Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) – an unhappy “arrangement” that saves her from poverty. After her husband commissions a portrait, she begins a passionate affair with the painter Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan), a struggling young artist. Seeking to escape the merchant’s ever-reaching grasp, the lovers risk everything and enter the frenzied tulip bulb market, with the hope that the right bulb will make a fortune and buy their freedom.


  • One never knows why troubles alight upon one film and not another. In general, it never bodes well when a film’s release is delayed multiple times as in the case of the film adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s 1999 novel, Tulip Fever. Originally intended as a John Madden-directed vehicle for Jude Law, Keira Knightley and Jim Broadbent, the film now limps into theatres starring Oscar winners Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench along with Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. The film is directed by Justin Chadwick, who also directed The Other Boleyn Girl, which may already be a signifier that Tulip Fever may be a visually lush but bloodless work, and further proof that his work on the arresting 2005 fifteen-part BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House might have been an anomaly (Chadwick directed eight episodes, Susanna White seven).

    Adapted by Moggach and the venerable Tom Stoppard, the story is set in 17th century Holland in the midst of the titular craze that gripped the country. Amidst this frenzy brews a melodrama involving the wealthy peppercorn nobleman Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz), his much younger second wife Sophia (Vikander), and the struggling painter Jan Van Loos (DeHaan), whom Cornelis has commissioned to do a double portrait. From the start, it’s made clear that the Sandvoort’s marriage is one of security for Sophia, an orphan plucked from the convent run by the tulip-rearing Abbess (Dench). Rescued from poverty, Sophia feels obliged to give Cornelis the child he so desperately wants but after three years of marriage, the two are ineluctably childless despite the readiness of Cornelis’ “little soldiers.” When Sophia and Jan set eyes on one another, it isn’t very long before the roilings of their desires manifest in breathless whispers, charged gazes, surreptitious touches, and intense yearnings to be with one another.

    That’s all well and good but for the incontestable fact that Vikander and DeHaan have zero chemistry, and so their feverish passion becomes very much a figment of the filmmakers’ imagination. This is especially evident when compared to the secondary set of lovers in the film: Sophia’s housemaid Maria (Holliday Grainger) and fishmonger William (Jack O’Connell). These two are practically radioactive with love and who can blame them: Grainger is earthy and radiant whilst O’Connell invests such hot feeling in each line. Maria and William’s story is a far more interesting one by the very dint of their amorous fervour, yet their fates are entwined and defined by the central couple who, despite all their tumblings between the sheets and shots of a naked Vikander, fail to be anything but soporific.

    In the early stages of the narrative, before Jan enters the picture, one thinks that the romantic complications may be between Sophia, Maria and William for Sophia and Maria are as close as sisters, or so the screenplay alleges. When it becomes clear that Jan is the one to stir Sophia’s desires, one wonders if Tulip Fever might be a period version of The Postman Always Rings Twice with the lusty lovers plotting to do away with the older husband. Alas, neither scenario comes to fruition. Instead, the filmmakers dive headlong into circumstances (mistaken identities, real and fake pregnancies) that not only skirt the edges of unbelievability but farce. In fact, Tulip Fever might have been far better had it been played as a straight out farce since there’s much running up and down the stairs, opening and closing of doors, and other bits that are so overdone that the film is almost a send-up of the period bodice-ripper.

    Chadwick seems to believe that more is more – never mind that the frame is already bursting with either the hustle and bustle of the crowded populace on the streets or in bars and brothels or the richly detailed interiors of the Sandvoort’s home, Chadwick lets the camera run amok, restlessly lurching about to and fro like some injured but determined drunk, and undermines the beautiful production design by Simon Elliott and the wonderful cinematography by Eigil Bryld, who manages to recreate the multiple framings to be found in the old Dutch masters in many of the early scenes. The camera obviously loves Vikander, whose tremulous intensity is defeated by the script’s deficiencies. Waltz, on the other hand, evolves Cornelis from buffoonish cuckold to a more poignant figure by film’s end.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆ out of 5)

    GRADE: C-


    IN BRIEF: A love story that never blossoms into anything remotely realistic or moving.

    SYNOPSIS: A historical romance set in 16th century Amsterdam that follows two star-crossed lovers amid the flower wars.

    RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 47 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Behold the tulip! Most delicate and beautiful, yet fragile and easily bruised. Its life expectancy is short-lived and it sags from its own top heaviness, finally withering after its bloom. The same can be said about its namesake, ‘s Tulip Fever, an overwrought illogical melodrama that is fetching to gaze upon and, quite literally, a dull affair.

    Tulip Fever is a visual feast for the eyes and a fertilizer for the mind. There is some good here, at least, technically: The stunning production design by Simon Elliott, detailed period costumes created by Michael O’Connor, and Eigil Bryld’s luscious photography are first rate. Danny Elfman has a lovely score also. These artisans deserve better future projects. But mostly, there is plenty of bad on view.

    Justin Chadwick directed this potboiler with little flourish. His film is well crafted but its central romance is tepid at best. The screenplay, based on Deborah Moggach’s best-selling romance novel, tries to interweave its narrative with some historical accuracy and some sexual passion and fails in both aspects. That celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard (along with the author) created this sluggish and loopy film adaptation is mind-boggling to me. The love story elements never gels with the political backstory and it all leads to an ending that becomes thoroughly nonsensical and unsatisfying.

    The storyline goes like this: Apparently tulips were all the rage in Amsterdam, a valued commodity back in the mid 1600’s. This special and rare flower brought high prices in what appeared to be a Ponzi scheme of sorts and the owner of this flora could earn serious guilders. Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan, very miscast), a talented but struggling artist, wants to be part of the “ flower fever”. Hired to commission portraits of a rich merchant and his lovely young wife (already you can see where this is going), Jan begins a torrid love tryst with Sophia (Alicia Vikander) while his cuckold husband Cornelius (Christoph Waltz), who is in dire need of a male heir, is oblivious to their nightly get-togethers.

    Mr. Waltz, forever typecasts as The Man You Love to Hate, takes over the villain role and adds some nice layers to his stock character. But Ms. Vikander and especially Mr. DeHaan are unconvincing and unappealing in their roles as the doomed lovers. Their love scenes together are laughable. Mr. DeHaan, always a poor man’s Leonardo diCaprio type, seems like a little lost boy in heat and Ms. Vikander rarely finds the right persona of a woman losing control over her life. Instead she loses control of her character. The two actors fail to add the necessary heat to burn those embers of passion. Yes, they’re naked and sweaty, but who cares?

    The supporting cast is totally wasted and the talent involved is given little to do. Such fine British performers as Holliday Grainger, Jack O’Connell, Douglas Hodge, David Harewood, and the great Judi Dench are ill-treated. American and Scottish actors are treated no better as Matthew Morrison and Kevin McKidd are given little to do. Tom Hollander does succeed in adding some needed humor in a minor role. But Cara Delevingine and Zach Galifianakis are walking enigmas in their parts as a prostitute and manservant, although if they switch roles, the film would at least be memorable.

    Tulip Fever reinforces the law of supply and demand in the core of its storytelling. Unfortunately, good drama is in short supply and demand to see this film should be limited. So don’t invest your time or money in this folly. It’s a real bust.

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  • British TV director Justin Chadwick’s film debut is like a 17th Century Dutch painting — in its historic and social setting, in its lighting but also and mainly in its themes.
    The film animates the details that the young portrait painter includes in his commissioned work: the love of beauty, reverence for nature, the temptation and fear of vanity and — most of all — its reminder of man’s mortality. Here all of our rich life and all our hopes remind us of death. “First flower, first fall,” master Sandvort says of a tulip but that truth rules the lovers’ lives as well.
    Of course this historic period piece essentially reflects on today. Why else revisit the past but to understand the now.
    The madness of the tulip investment frenzy finds ample modern parallels in Nortel, the high tech, mortgage, marijuana and real estate bubbles, not to mention the evergreen turbulent stock market. There is always some current fever to tempt the gullible and greedy to get rich quick. And as so often, the vanity that believes in such unearned advancement oft proves disastrous.
    Vanity is the film’s — and the painting genre’s — primary target. Out of vanity Sandvort buys his beautiful orphan wife Sophia like a precious jar and out of vanity pursues his hunger for a male heir. It is even vain of him to presume that it was his prayer — that God preserve the newborn infant over his first wife — that prompted God to take both. If he is vain to tell his friend that he’ll dump Sophia if she’s not pregnant in six months, he is moderated by his love to keep her. Indeed, at Sophia’s ostensible pregnancy Sandvort asks Dr Sorgh to save Sophia over the child, if the choice is necessary.
    Out of vanity Sandvort commissions the double painting, even after the artist clearly exposes the vanity of human wishes and security. Of course the plan backfires when the painter and Sophia Sandvort fall in love.
    Both sets of young lovers risk their passions in pursuit of the tulip fortune that would fund their escape. Both are thwarted by folly. Maria’s young man makes his fortune. Falsely assuming her infidelity, he goes to a tavern where he is robbed of it and is shanghaied into the navy and off to Africa. He leaves his pregnant lover in the dark. (Well, in the even darker, given the film’s period lighting.) The artist briefly forgets he’s in art not business and bets his future on the tulip market.
    Of course there are other fevers than just the tulip. The minor one is the drunk’s helplessness before temptation, even when conducting that serious mission. A creature of appetite, he eats the bulb on which so many characters’ fates depend.
    The other primary fever is love, which drives both young men into ruinous careers. So intense are the relationships that out of desperation Maria threatens to expose her dear and close mistress Sophia in order to save herself. Sophia spurns the doctor who offers to help her provide his husband’s heir. But to enable her escape with the artist she concocts the complex plot to pass Maria’s baby off as her own and to feign death.
    The film’s parts from the genre in its happy endings. None of the key characters die here. Sandvort, ashamed and defeated, bequeaths his house to Maria and makes a new fortune and family in the West Indies.
    The two young men also thrive, once they abandon their delusion of easy wealth. The fishmonger becomes master of the Sandvort estate. The artist achieves fame for his art. From sketching his nude lover he advances to a commission in the church — where he learns Sophia did not die after all but became a nun. Sophia realized she could not go through with her indulgent escape, nor could she return to the loving and betrayed Sandvort. So she returns to her original home, the convent.
    Love conquers all after all. As the abbess remarks, stories don’t end; they just diverge. A painting freezes a moment in time. We read into it what may have led up to its composition and what we may deduce will ensue. But film continues through time, so it affords the grace of these happy resolutions.
    The script shows Tom Stoppard’s usual level of intellectual ambition and clarity. There are also flashes of his wit. “What will you bid,” one man asks after an auction. “Farewell.” “Is that necessary?” Maria asks Dr Sorgh when he prepares to explore up her skirts. “Not really. Force of habit.” Hence Sophia’s return.

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