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Not Much of a Fever for Tulip Fever

Believe it or not, Tulip Fever actually did exist. During the early seventeenth century, tulips, still the national flower of the Netherlands, became a really hot commodity in the thriving Dutch Empire, selling for exorbitant prices purely out of their fashion and beauty. And it’s against this backdrop that Justin Chadwick’s latest film, also called Tulip Fever, is set. It’s based on the novel by Deborah Moggach, but more notably, the screenplay was adapted by acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard. That’s surely something to set your hopes high on.
Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) is an aristocrat in 1630s Amsterdam who’s desperate to have a child with his young wife Sophia (Alicia Vikander). However he’s impotent and she’s sexually unfulfilled. When he commissions a portrait be painted of them, the young artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) falls in love with her, and they begin a secret affair while gambling in the tulip market. At the same time the film follows the relationship between Sophia’s maid Maria (Holliday Grainger) and her fishmonger lover Willem (Jack O’Connell), whose story eventually coincides with Sophia’s.
As someone of proud Dutch heritage and with an admiration for Dutch art running in my family, there’s a lot in this movie that I like. The culture and society of Amsterdam in this period is on full display and the whole visual aesthetic is constantly referencing Dutch art, particularly the work of Jan Vermeer. There are shots and moments that are more stylistically reminiscent of Jan Steen, Frans Hals, and of course Rembrandt as well (such as some of the lighting); but Vermeer is the clear inspiration both in van Loos’ style and the fact that Sophia has a somewhat “Girl with the Pearl Earring” pose. Also the idea of the Dutch painter falling for his model is directly analogous to Tracey Chevalier’s novel of that same name. So the film is quite beautiful to watch with a lot of nice looking imagery and a good realization of the era. Even if the shaky cam gets too distracting in some of the street scenes.
Unfortunately, the story connected to these visuals is pretty absurd. It starts off as straightforward as I described, though with a very rushed build into Jan and Sophia’s relationship. But the story takes some very dumb turns. For a while, the subplot concerning Maria and Willem has no connection to anything, and when they do merge it’s for a very goofy major plot point that feels incredibly out of place in this generally serious romantic drama. In fact, Willem becomes engaged in an off-screen storyline that might just be more interesting than what actually is shown. The editing is also very strange, often intercutting simultaneous scenes, but they’re very tonally inconsistent scenes. There’s also an irritating misunderstanding, and many of the characters, Sophia most of all, come off incredibly dimwitted by some choices and rationalizations. Her last significant action is especially short-sighted. Stoppard tries his best with the script, imbuing some of his Shakespeare in Love romanticized dialogue, but it doesn’t work here either. He’s usually at his best when working with something more comedic, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead being the obvious example.
The actors are also legitimately trying for the most part. Though her character is enormously flawed, Vikander plays Sophia very well, proving again even with lesser material, how terrific an actress she is. DeHaan is putting effort in too, giving an okay performance that’s miles ahead of what he was doing in Valerian. And speaking of which, Cara Delevigne is in this movie for no reason! It’s a very small role and I can only imagine it’s the result of Valerian being filmed around the same time just across the Channel (Tulip Fever having been filmed in England). Christoph Waltz delivers as honestly a pretty sympathetic character despite Sophia’s attempts to escape her marriage to him. This movie boasts quite a good supporting cast, from Kevin McKidd and Douglas Hodge to Zach Galifianakis of all people playing Jan’s drunken sidekick. And he’s actually not bad. David Harewood is in the movie, Tom Hollander plays another in a long line of creeps, and Judi Dench appears as an Abbess, giving a great performance with her little screen-time. But while O’Connell is very good, the weak link of the cast is probably Grainger, who’s more than a little wooden and her line delivery is lacking. This is especially problematic given she’s the narrator.
Tulip Fever is worth watching only if you’re really interested in the Dutch Golden Age. It’s emphatically a great looking movie with good performances too, but it’s the story and characters that really aren’t going to make it in any way memorable otherwise. Which is a shame because I’d love to see more films set in this era of Holland. It’s a period and culture that deserves to be better explored cinematically. 

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