The Weinstein Company
There’s a certain audience for a period drama set in 17th Century Holland that explores the history of the country’s primary floral export and how it affected lives in Amsterdam during that time.
Obviously, this subject held enough interest for Deborah Moggach to write a book about it. Let’s face it. Writing a book about something costs almost nothing and if her book about tulips was released into total obscurity, no one would be any the wiser. Instead, it wound up on the reading list of producer Alison Owen, who decided to make it into a movie and almost eighteen years later… it’s going to remain in a far more expensive level of obscurity known as “The Weinstein Company dump.”
As a critic, it’s sometimes hard to take a movie seriously when it’s been sitting on the shelf as long as Tulip Fever has. You try very hard to just appreciate it for what the filmmakers and cast were trying to do and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, Tulip Fever, directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), was not worth such a long wait. In fact, it’s such an obviously misguided effort you wonder why no one talked Owen and Harvey Weinstein out of making this movie many years earlier.
Sure, on paper, it looks fine, especially when you have Oscar-winning actors like Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz in major roles. There’s potentially a good movie in there somewhere, but Tulip Fever does not do justice to any of the presumably good intentions that went into making the movie.
The film begins with an oral history of the flowers and the tulip trade in Amsterdam before we meet Vikander’s Sophia, an orphaned young woman living in a convent, where her hand in marriage is sold to wealthy merchant Comelis Sandvoort (Waltz), who is desperate to have a son. Already being a marriage not based on love, you just know there’s going to be trouble, but it doesn’t help when Sophia’s husband hires a handsome young artist (Dane DeHaan) to paint their portrait and Sophia immediately falls in love with him.
The Weinstein Company
At the same time, the Sandvoort’s maid Maria (Holliday Grainger) is madly in love with fishmonger Willem (a completely unrecognizable Jack O’Connell), but as he gets involved in the tulip trade, he also gets into trouble financially and mysteriously vanishes. Because Maria is pregnant with no potential husband, she and Sophia plot a way to give Comelis his desired child by pretending Maria’s baby is actually Sophia’s. Sadly, it ends up being a girl.
That plot probably sounds a lot like a daytime soap opera if it was set in historic Holland, but few of the ideas taken from Moggach’s novel feel that original even when compared to other historic dramas. Overall, it feels like something taken from a blueprint on how to make this type of movie, particularly the love triangle romance at the center of it.
Vikander was quite impressive in her string of 2015 releases, and you’d think Tulip Fever would be the perfect follow-up to The Danish Girl, for which she won an Oscar. Over the course of the film, you’re proven wrong as Vikander plays Sophia almost the exact same way even though this is a woman from a different culture and in a different situation.
Waltz has always seemed like a one-note actor to me, and watching him talk about his “little soldier” and having awkward post-prayer sex with Vikander doesn’t do much to improve one’s vision of his limited abilities. To be fair, Comelis is never physically abusive to Sophia, and he even starts to love his nun-order bride, but being played by Waltz just makes the character that much more repulsive. Vikander’s love scenes with DeHaan — whose bland performance makes it obvious this was filmed long before his previous two movies of the year — are slightly better, but there’s still something less than romantic about the whole movie.The Weinstein Company
In fact, the characters played by Grainger and O’Connell and their journey is far more intriguing than the Sandvoorts’ saga, which may be why the film is narrated by Maria. It takes far too long into the movie before you even realize that’s the case, which is par for the course of a movie regularly has trouble finding its footing.
These are the things that should have easily been figured out at the script stage before the film was handed over to a weaker director like Chadwick, who basically conveys the story as given to him and doesn’t offer much more than that.
At least the film has a few gorgeous set pieces that show the piers of Amsterdam in all their glory with hundreds of extras on set hustling and bustling, as well as an inordinate amount of hookers that predate the city’s current red light district.
Dame Judi Dench is flawless as usual as the Abbess at the convent where Sophia finds herself as an orphan, but you’re not likely to even recognize Zach Gallifianakis as Gerrit, Jan’s best friend who also ends up being his undoing. As usual, Tom Hollander steals most of his scenes as Dr. Sorgh, a crackpot early gynecologist who helps Sophia and Maria with their deceit.
Eventually, the call of the tulip corrupts Jan’s own desires to make enough money to steal Sophia away from her husband, as he gets into the same troubles Willem suffered earlier. By that point, you’re so sick of the very word “tulip” you just want the movie to be over as quickly as possible.
However you slice it, Tulip Fever is only similar to a far superior period film like Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, in that you can admire it for its glorious production design and recreation of the times, but good luck understanding how any of it might appeal to modern moviegoers. It isn’t awful, but it’s needlessly convoluted and dull, dull, dull.
Tulip Fever is released nationwide on Friday, Sept. 1.
Running time: 105 minutes
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor