Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan and Christoph Waltz play residents of 17th-century Amsterdam in a romantic drama involving art, adultery and high-stakes flower bulbs.
A highbrow bodice-ripper set against the financial frenzy of the Western world’s first speculative bubble, Deborah Moggach’s 1999 novel Tulip Fever has “cinematic” written all over it. Yet after a long, circuitous route to the screen, it arrives not as a lusty tale in full bloom, but as a tastefully arranged still life in search of an animating spark.
To be fair, the Justin Chadwick-directed feature, whose release has been postponed several times since it was shot in 2014, isn’t devoid of sexual heat — in key supporting roles, Holliday Grainger (My Cousin Rachel) and Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) stir up a spirited blaze. That’s not the case, unfortunately, for the triangle at the center of the drama; played by Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan and Christoph Waltz — they feel like coexisting characters from separate stories.
With strong contributions from production designer Simon Elliott and cinematographer Eigil Bryld, Chadwick does, however, convincingly conjure the Brueghelian hubbub of 1630s Amsterdam. It’s a city in the flush of a new modernity built on the wealth of international shipping and trade. Art patronage is robust. Hitting the sweet spot between the drive for profit and the fetishization of objects of beauty is the exotic tulip. The flower’s bulbs have become the subject of frenetic bidding in the back rooms of taverns, a commodities exchange that creates overnight fortunes and sends some investors into the canal in suicidal despair.
Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz), a wealthy importer, has no need to speculate in the tulip market. A widower who has taken a much younger second wife, Sophia (Vikander), his pressing concern is immortality: He longs for an heir. When she hasn’t produced one after three years of marriage, he seeks a different form of afterlife, hiring an up-and-coming painter, Jan van Loos (DeHaan), to memorialize him and Sophia in a portrait.
For Sophia, an orphan raised in a convent, her marriage to the prosperous “king of peppercorns” is a deal that she feels bound to honor because he saved her from a life of poverty. But then again, he’s sixty-something, stodgily Protestant and refers to his penis as “my little soldier” — something that we can safely presume the bedroom-eyed Jan does not do.
To underscore what’s already clearly telegraphed in Chadwick’s direction, when Jan lugs his easel and paints into his new clients’ home, the film’s voiceover narration, delivered by the Sandvoorts’ domestic servant, Maria (Grainger), assures us that “upheaval entered the house.” To which you might respond: Really?
No matter how languorously their naked bodies entwine or how ardently Jan grinds his ultramarine to capture the blue of Sophia’s silk dress, their affair is as lacking in dimension as their characters. He’s a cipher, and she’s a collection of backstory facts, and two actors who have been riveting elsewhere come off as pallid stand-ins for narrative ideas.
The screenplay, credited to Moggach and Tom Stoppard, leaves the churn of emotional upheaval and danger described more than felt. Though Sophia and Jan’s course of action isn’t meant to be sympathetic, it should at least be involving. But the outrageously selfish scheme that they embark on — involving another woman’s pregnancy, an ethics-challenged doctor of “female mysteries” (Tom Hollander) and a big gamble on tulips — further distances them from the audience.
Waltz’s blathering cuckold becomes strangely poignant, and the most sympathetic character among the trio. But it’s Grainger’s vibrant Maria and her secret lover, the fishmonger Willem (O’Connell), who inject the handsomely lensed proceedings with jolts of humor and passion. With an eye on marriage, Willem will be the first of the characters to take a chance on tulip futures, an act of hope and purposefulness that resonates where little else does.
While Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) captures the aspirational pandemonium of tulipomania and its reach across class lines, the ostensibly rising drama lies flat, laid out piece by piece, with an elegant assist from Danny Elfman’s score but without the necessary alchemizing energy to make the story truly take hold.
Adding to the sense of a story that’s unfinished or cursory is the profusion of actors whose parts seem to have been sliced and diced into slivers — among them Kevin McKidd, Matthew Morrison, David Harewood, Zach Galifianakis and DeHaan’s Valerian co-star Cara Delevingne. In her inimitable fashion, Judi Dench, as the abbess of a convent that serves as a key broker of tulips, makes an impact in a few key scenes; with her magnificent terseness and piercing gaze, she cuts through the narrative fog of a movie so filled with incident and yet so wanting in chemistry.
Production companies: Worldview Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Ruby Films
Distributor: The Weinstein Co.
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Christoph Waltz, Jack O’Connell, Holliday Grainger, Tom Hollander, Judi Dench, Zach Galifianakis, Cara Delevingne, Matthew Morrison, Kevin McKidd, David Harewood, Joanna Scanlan
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriters: Deborah Moggach, Tom Stoppard; based on the novel by Deborah Moggach
Producers: Alison Owen, Harvey Weinstein
Executive producers: Paul Trijbits, Bob Weinstein, David Glasser, Justin Chadwick, Chris Woodrow, Molly Conners, Maria Cestone, Sarah E. Johnson, Patrick Thompson, Laurie MacDonald, Walter Parkes
Director of photography: Eigil Bryld
Production designer: Simon Elliott
Costume designer: Michael O’Connor
Editor: Rick Russell
Composer: Danny Elfman
Casting director: Shaheen Baig