Movie Review: Tulip Fever

Among people who keep an eye on movie news, Tulip Fever has been a bit of a folk tale. It was announced in 2013, and screened at the 2015 Venice film festival, but then its release dates kept getting pushed back and back and back. When Fandango actually put up a release date, it was for the last weekend in August, but in reality it opened on Labor Day weekend.

It’s a weird movie with the most random cast imaginable. Three Oscar winners (Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, and Judi Dench), Holliday Grainger in her obligatory period drama, Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice), the kid and the chick from Valerian (who I guess come as a package deal?), Kevin McKidd (who needed something to do during the Grey’s Anatomy hiatus?) Matthew Morrison for some reason, and Zach Galifianakis. It’s written by Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl). It’s based on the novel Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach.

Waltz and Vikander sitting for their portrait, with tulips in a vase in the foreground. A petal falls, because tulips don't last long. Tulips, man.

Set during the Tulip Mania in Amsterdam in the 1630s, it’s…well, it was marketed (such as it was) as a thriller, but there’s nothing remotely thrilling about it. It’s the story of Sophia (Vikander), who is married to an older merchant, Cornelis (Waltz), and he engages a painter (Dane DeHaan, aka Valerian) to paint their portraits. Sophia and the painter fall into lust, and they plan to escape after making a bunch of money on the tulip market. There’s also a plot with Maria, Sophia’s maid/cook (Grainger) who has a paramour of her own, and there’s a secret baby….

There’s just a lot happening.

Cornelis acquired himself a young wife because he wanted an heir, but he has some issues with his “little soldier.” When DeHaan shows up, Sophia has pants feelings, he has pants feelings, and after like, a conversation and a half (all held while Cornelis is in the room), they both conclude that they are in love, and must bang. IMMEDIATELY. A lot.

Alicia Vikander coming down into a room with patterned walls (leaves in curly-cue shape all over the wall) wearing a blue gown with a white lace collar.

At the same time, Maria is carrying on an affair with the fishmonger, William, who, in an effort to make enough money to buy them a farm, gets involved in the tulip market, and does really well for himself until he gets pressed into service by the navy. He’s not able to send word of where he is or what’s going on, and Maria is now pregnant. Sophia comes up with a plan to fake a pregnancy herself and to hide Maria’s. Once Maria gives birth, then Maria will be able to be with the baby, but of course I see about twelve holes in this plan right here. Meanwhile, Sophia and her painter also want to be with each other, and…and…

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eventually there’s a couple of faked deaths.  Because that’s how to properly ghost from a relationship. Twice.

There are some interesting things happening in the setting. The Dutch school of painting in this era is fantastic, and the film lays out why: with the Reformation putting a stop to religious art, the artists turned their attention to ordinary life and ordinary people. When plotting out the portrait of Cornelis and Sophia, the painter offers his selections of props and the reasons for them: scales and a globe to symbolize worldwide commerce, a skull for mortality, and something else to symbolize vanity (and then a whole diatribe on how it’s vain to have your portrait painted, but if you have a warning against vanity in the painting then it’s ironic or something?). So that bit was interesting.

Alicia Vikander, next to a window with a letter. The shot is composed like a Vermeer painting with light streaming in.

The whole concept of tulip mania and the fact that people were buying tulip bulbs for absurd amounts of money were also fascinating. Like…it’s tulips. Tulips are  pretty, but…it’s a tulip. (I’ve typed out tulip so many times that it doesn’t look like a real word anymore.) I admit totally that I don’t really understand the stock market or how all of this actually is supposed to work, but I do know a frenzy involving money when I see one.  (My dad used to do stock market…stuff…and in the pre-internet age, when there was a channel that just did stock prices on a ticker, he would plunk 7 year old me down in front of it, with a list of three or four stocks I was to watch for, and I would yell the numbers up to him.  A+ parenting.)

All of the actors involved in this film are great (I was quite pleasantly surprised by Galifianakis, who I mostly don’t think about) (although seriously, Waltz as an doddering old man with no sex appeal? what?), and they are doing the best they can.

Dane DeHaan walking through the streets of Amsterdam, carrying his painting supplies. The street is muddy and wet.

The costumes are great (although I am excited to see what Frock Flicks has to say about it, because I have some questions), and the set design is fantastic. I’m enjoying this trend of “the past, especially pre-sanitation systems, is a muddy, messy place.” It makes things more real. Chadwick at least framed some shots to look like Dutch master paintings.

The problem lies in the script and the fact that the movie doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Tom Stoppard is great with witty dialogue, and there are some genuinely funny bits (Tom Hollander’s doctor is one), but they seemed rather out of place. The passage of time is unclear. The only way to measure anything is by the progression of Maria’s pregnancy.

You’d think with that writer and that cast and being produced by the Weinsteins, you might have a good movie. But the main crux of everything is just a mess. What’s the point? No one learns anything, not even the audience. No one can seem to explain why people went bonkers over tulips. No one can explain why Sophia and Valerian decided that they were in love enough to run away together. No one can explain anything, really. The movie is pretty but unsatisfying.

And again, my friend Kayleigh would think me remiss if I didn’t wonder why anyone would bang Valerian when you have Christoph Waltz RIGHT THERE.

Christoph Waltz, in a GIANT RUFF, posing for his portrait. It's kinda hot, in that Cone of Shame kind of way.

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