A historical drama film directed by Justin Chadwick (‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’) and written by Tom Stoppard (‘Brazil’, ‘Shakespeare in Love’), ‘Tulip Fever’ is based on the 1999 best-selling novel of the same name by English author Deborah Moggach (whose earlier book ‘These Foolish Things’ became ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’).
Set in the Netherlands in the 17th century, during the period of the “tulip mania”, the film tells the story of Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), an artist who falls for a married young woman, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), while he's commissioned to paint her portrait by her husband, a wealthy merchant named Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz).
After an ambitious fishmonger makes a lucky gamble on a batch of 50 white bulbs that contains a rare “breaker,” Jan gets cocky in what amounts to the world’s first futures market, and before long, he’s risking great sums on the prospect that the same breaker will fetch considerably more down the road.
This venture has him relying more then he should on his alcoholic best friend (Zach Galifianakis) and also puts him in business with the Abbess (Oscar winner Dame Judy Dench) of St Ursula, a nearby orphanage which raises children – and tulips. But Sophia getting away from her husband is going to take more than money. It's going to take a grander plan, which ends up involving a doctor named Sorgh (Tom Hollander) and Sophia's maid and friend, Maria (Holliday Granger), whose character narrates part of the story and whose lover, William (Jack O'Connell), mysteriously disappears.
If you couldn’t tell by the director, screenwriter and the involvement of The Weinstein Company, ‘Tulip Fever’ wants to be a ‘Chocolat’ or, even better, the new ‘Shakespeare in Love’.
It would be remiss of me not to include some of this film’s notorious backstory. ‘Tulip Fever’ was initially put into production in 2004, with a cast that included Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Jim Broadbent, with director John Madden (‘Shakespeare in Love’) and a script from Moggach and Stoppard. Until, that is, then-Chancellor Gordon Brown closed a UK tax loophole that increased the film’s costs by millions practically overnight. Production was immediately cancelled, despite sets being built and over 12,000 tulip bulbs already planted.
The Weinsteins got a hold of the property several years later, after names including Tom Hooper and Peter Chelsom tried and failed to bring the film to life. Harvey Weinstein even attempted to convince Harry Styles to make his acting debut in the film, but was turned down. He still managed to get an all-star cast to sign on and gave it a release date at the heart of Oscar season in 2015.
That release didn’t materialise, however, and the film rescheduled for summer 2016. But just nine days before it was due to hit U.S. cinemas last July, the Weinstein Company announced it was pulling ‘Tulip Fever’ off the schedule and moving it to an unspecified date in early 2017 - despite having already booked screens and lined up promotion.
Why? Well, Harvey and Bob Weinstein have been investing enormous sums of money in Oscar campaigns to help promote their projects and those projects have been [i]really bad[/i] lately (the company may not even exist by the time this review goes up).
If you like mistaken identities, overheard conversations, dumb narrative contrivances and characters conveniently swept away by circumstance, my friends... you are in for a treat!
Anyway, 'Tulip Fever' has finally arrived! Was it worth the wait?
Immediately noticeable are the tell-tale characteristics of a troubled production process: the patronising use of a narrator to walk the audience through the plot. Shaky camera. Jumpy editing.
How is the script by renowned playwright Tom Stoppard? If you like mistaken identities, overheard conversations, dumb narrative contrivances and characters conveniently swept away by circumstance, my friends... you are in for a treat!
It’s hard to tell whether it’s due to bad acting, poor writing or the way the film has been pruned, but there are some yawning voids where there should be characterisation, like Cara Delevingne, who plays a prostitute in what amounts to a cameo, and Zach Galifianakis as Jan’s boorish Comedy Oaf Sidekick™ manservant, Gerrit. Even quality British performers such as Holliday Grainger, Jack O'Connell, Douglas Hodge, David Harewood and the legendary Judi Dench are ill-treated.
The thing which really snaps the stem of this sad little flower of a film is the complete lack of sexual chemistry between the usually impressive Vikander and Dane “Leo DiCaprio was too expensive” DeHaan. Due to their lack of heat, Christoph Waltz’s cuckolded antagonist ends up being quite sympathetic by comparison.
The only higlight is the work of production designer Simon Elliott and cinematographer Eigil Bryld. The film has beautiful costumes and high production values – the audience gets a real sense of Amsterdam as a city in the flush of a new modernity built on the wealth of international shipping and trade. Bryld’s cinematography is suitably crisp and colourful.
Harvey Weinstein defended this film in advance with a column for Deadline Hollywood by whining, “I know this film’s not perfect, very few are, but it’s a perfectly good time in a movie theatre.”
Consider the source of the statement and what it implies about the film.
Avoid catching ‘Tulip Fever’ at a cinema near you.