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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.
At the beginning of the film, Cornelis Sandvoort (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 struggling artist Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan) 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, Tom Hollander, comedian Zach Galifianakis, Cara Delevingne in a small role and seven-time Academy Award nominee Dame Judi Dench as an abbess. They are 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.
Tulip Fever was co-written by playwright Tom Stoppard (both of Stoppard’s parents were non-observant Jews. He fled with them from Czechoslovakia just before the Nazi occupation. It was not until the age of sixty that he found out he had a deep Jewish ancestry). On top of all the award winners and nominees in the cast, Stoppard won an Academy Award in 1998 for Best Original Screenplay for 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. However, the plans for this film have changed substantially since it was first announced.
Tulip Fever, based on a bestselling 1999 novel by Deborah Moggach (who also co-wrote the screenplay), has quite the history. The much abbreviated version is this (taken from several much more detailed accounts on-line): the book was immediately optioned. After an aborted attempt in 2004, it finally began production in 2013. The first test screenings began 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 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 stars
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews