Originally filmed back in 2014, and initially planned as an Oscar contender, Tulip Fever
is finally just now limping into theaters after years of various broken release dates, and an overall sense that the studio was trying to cover the stench of this once highly-regarded project when they refused to screen it for critics. This is a lifeless, drab and contrived costume drama that ranges from lurid melodrama to moments of inappropriate comedy, and ultimately sinks despite the presence of a strong cast.
I have not read Deborah Moggach's original novel that inspired the film, but just by watching it, I can tell that this adaptation more or less covers the important plot moments, but gives them no resonance or meaning. The screenplay reads almost as if the writers simply looked at the book's plot synopsis on Wikipedia, and then used it as their inspiration. This is surprising, considering that Moggach herself is credited as one of the screenwriters. However, considering how long the movie has been sitting on the shelf, and the various edits it went through in order to make it semi-watchable, you have to wonder how much of her work actually survived the process. Whatever the case, all the passion and life has been drained from what could have easily been an intriguing historical drama.
The title refers to a point in history during 1636 to 1637 when in Amsterdam, tulips were discovered, and the demand for these new flowers became so high that people were paying astronomical prices for them. Many scenes occur in an auction house that somewhat resembles the modern day stock market, where people wildly bid and pay hefty wages for the rights to own the flowers. However, much of this occurs in the background throughout the movie, so it never quite has the prominence that you would expect, given that the title is derived from this element of the story. Instead, the main plot focuses on a love triangle that would feel right at home in any daytime soap opera, or perhaps a cheap paperback romance novel.
The plot kicks off with a former orphan named Sophia (Alicia Vikander), and her forbidden love affair with a young painter named Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan, who is not having a very good 2017, having also appeared in bombs such as A Cure for Wellness
and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
). Sophia was once penniless, but now lives a life of luxury as the second wife to businessman Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). Her main purpose in the marriage is to give Cornelis a child. Although her husband is kind to her and gives her everything she desires, Sophia feels no love toward him. She is also unable to conceive a child, so she feels trapped in her dreary existence. The audience shares in her misery, since many of the scenes between Vikander and Waltz (who, it must be said, is doing his best with this lifeless material) generates no emotion whatsoever.
The young artist Jan Van Loos is plucked from obscurity in order to conceive a portrait of the couple, and that is when the trouble begins. It is love at first sight for both Sophia and Jan, and before you know it, she's sneaking out at all hours in order to have sexual flings with the painter. This is interspersed with a subplot concerning Cornelis' maid, Maria (Holliday Grainger), who is also carrying on her own secret affair with the handsome young fishmonger William (Jack O'Connell). All these secrets and sleeping around eventually catch up with our characters, and creates a complicated scenario where everyone involved will have their lives changed and destroyed. However, it all unfurls at such a turgid pace, the audience simply remains detached during the entire experience.
is filled with multiple plots vying for attention, yet none of them are interesting. The movie tries to be a history lesson as well as a steamy and lurid love affair story, but this requires severe tonal shifts that the movie is incapable of pulling off. Stranger still, there are moments that seem to be aiming for comedy that feel completely out of place. Most inappropriate is the bizarre appearance of Zach Galifianakis as a good friend of the young painter, whose every attempt to lighten up the material crashes with a thud so loud, it can probably be heard in the next cinema over. Judi Dench also turns up in a small role as an abbess, and while she delivers as usual, her character has so little to do with anything that it never builds to anything interesting. You get the sense that Dench is here solely to lend what the filmmakers knew was a trouble production a touch of dignity.
But the film's ultimate downfall is that we simply are uninvolved with the complex romantic love story that it is trying to spin. You can easily pin the blame on the witless screenplay that is often as dry as a bone in both its dialogue and drama, but it's even easier to point at the lifeless performances as being unable to generate any emotion or sympathy for these people. The usually strong and always interesting Alicia Vikander seems awkward here, and plays Sophia not as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, but rather as somebody who has never felt love before in her life, and is trying to sort out her feelings. Likewise, DeHaan creates no interest in his performance as the painter, and is able to create little to no romantic chemistry with Vikander. This is what sinks everything. If we don't buy the central scandalous romance, we don't buy everything else. Director Justin Chadwick simply finds no reason for us to connect with the story or the people inhabiting it.
The only bright spots in Tulip Fever
is the production design, which is often quite handsome, and the music score provided by Danny Elfman. They hint at what the film was supposed to be, before it became a dirty little secret that the studio tried to keep hidden by pushing it out in limited release over Labor Day Weekend, one of the slowest movie weekends of the year. It's obvious that there were grand ambitions here, but they were brought down by an overall leaden script and the lifeless or just wrong performances. Instead of the awards and critical acclaim that the studio had in their heads when they embarked on this, the movie is likely to be greeted with empty cinemas and a quick trip to DVD.