Tulip Fever

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Justin Chadwick

Starring

Alicia Vikander Christoph Waltz Holliday Grainger

Anticipation.

This has been held back a very long time, but perhaps to enhance its awards chances?

Enjoyment.

An old school, honest-to-goodness write-off.

In Retrospect.

One you’ll want to expunge from your mind as quickly as possible.

Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz suffer through this turgid period drama.

There are those who, when part way through an endeavour which is clearly destined for folly, would simply throw in the towel and nobly accept themselves beaten. Tulip Fever appears as an example of the opposite, where an unmistakable wrongness which demands urgent self correction is swept aside in favour of a vulgar dash towards the finish line. The story concerns the 17th century “tulip mania” (a wide scale fixation with rare tulip bulbs) and takes place in an Amsterdam where the entire grubby populace have amassed on a single soundstage consisting of one street, one courtyard, one pub and one dimly lit house.

In an attempt to extract some febrile colour from the locale, exterior shots consist of the same clammy-faced extras dusting rugs or hoisting baskets of herring or swigging a mug of ale. It looks like a British prestige cinema theme park experience, and so it’s near impossible to suspend disbelief and accept the high seriousness of the film’s decidedly lunatic plot line, which involves fundamentalist religion, infertility, baby swapping, coincidences, portrait painting, some more coincidences, illegal back room tulip bulb trading and even more really suspect coincidences.

Before we delve into the details, it must be said that this story – based on a novel by Deborah Moggach and co-adapted by Tom Stoppard – contains a number of narrative contrivances that are so brazen in their idiocy that even the most forgiving period romp lover will likely splutter in mock indignation at how the sordid machinations unfold. Sorry to labour the point, but this entire film hinges on a number of moments so unbelievable that it’s hard to accept the makers even went ahead and filmed the story as is. When happenstance rules, drama suffers.

Alicia Vickander cranks her simpering waif schtick up to the max as Sophia, orphan-turned-wife to demure local peppercorn magnate Cornelis (Christoph Waltz). With the Lord having taken his children from him, Cornelis is in need an heir, and so readies his “little soldiers” each night to mechanically march into Sophia’s loins – but it’s just not happening. Yet, through a series of lucky coincidences, Sophia sees a way out. Housemaid Maria (a game Holliday Grainger) is up the duff, and it could be the chance needed to flit with portrait painter-turned-tulip obsessive Jan (a spectacularly awful Dane DeHaan).

If there’s something to salvage here it is Waltz, who at least refuses the easy option of making his character the cackling bad guy. His pitiable cuckold ends up with the most surprising and credible character arc, and even though he’s forced to play along with much gnarly dialogue, he manages to break even in the end. Finally, the film tells you little if anything about the “tulip mania” – by its reckoning, the whole fad involved jowly tyrants in oversized ruffs screaming numbers and flapping paper in the basement of a pub.

Yes, it all sounds lovably loopy on paper, but on screen it makes for a rancid mess. And that’s not even mentioning Cara Delevingne as a misc wench with a single line of dialogue, and – wait for it – Zach Galifianakis as a drunken rube with a comedy west country accent. It’s like a car crash where people have gathered around to survey the wreckage and another car then accidentally plows in to inflict yet more damage. Tonally it’s all over the map, beginning as baroque drama, then becoming a soft-focus erotic thriller, morphing suddenly into Ray Cooney-style bedroom farce, and then ending in a frazzle of awkward loose ends.

Published 1 Sep 2017

Tags: Alicia Vikander Cara Delevingne Dane DeHaan

Anticipation.

This has been held back a very long time, but perhaps to enhance its awards chances?

Enjoyment.

An old school, honest-to-goodness write-off.

In Retrospect.

One you’ll want to expunge from your mind as quickly as possible.

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