Film Review: Tulip Fever

Seventeenth-century costumer with exquisite production design is a lovely but overloaded vase holding competing romantic, dramatic, comedic, historic and suspense sprouts for its narrative about love and Amsterdam’s aborning tulip market.
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Tulip Fever, a visually appealing soap opera, aspires to be too much and ends up being not enough. Nicely capturing a 1630s Amsterdam where in-demand tulips and hopes of wealth sprout alongside an illicit love affair, the film, adapted by the renowned Sir Tom Stoppard from Deborah Moggach’s novel, is largely the love story of a young, well-to-do bride (Alicia Vikander) and the young painter (Dane DeHaan) hired to paint a vanity portrait of her and her wealthy merchant husband (Christoph Waltz).

Points for a great look and for name credits on both sides of the camera, meaning the art-house crowd may initially perk up. But warning buzzers sound for attempts to turn the film steamy (lust and passion here needed more patient fertilizing) and into a financial thriller, a genre which usually works best when romance is shortchanged (e.g., Arbitrage, Equity, The Big Short, etc.). Also, broad stabs at comedy don’t help matters.

The plot kicks off when Sophia (Vikander), a poor orphaned woman living in an abbey under the care of a kindly abbess (Judi Dench), gets married off to older merchant and widower Cornelis (Waltz) and resettled into his comfortable bourgeois home tended to by young maid Maria (Holliday Grainger).

There’s a strain on the marriage—that age difference and Cornelis’ eagerness for a child, although Sophia is not overly eager in bed and the couple’s few years working on this aren’t proving fruitful. Not helping in this matter is Dr. Sorgh (Tom Hollander), the quack fertility doctor Sophia regularly visits, whose sole focus is sex with his patients.

When Cornelis commissions up-and-coming painter Jan (DeHaan) to paint his and Sophia’s portrait (a habit of the times as the film’s references to Rembrandt, Vermeer, et al. visually remind), a flame starts flickering between Sophia and Jan. As quickly as sex and drugs can be scored in today’s Amsterdam, the two begin a secret affair. Meanwhile, maid Maria has a beau, local fishmonger Willem (Jack O’Connell), who is among those drawn to the soon-to-explode tulip bulb market, which marked one of the earliest examples, if not the first, of what has become the futures market. And an economic bubble.

Back on the love front, Willem, on his way to visiting Maria, mistakes a disguised Sophia, stealing off for another tryst with Jan, for Maria and assumes his love is cheating on him. Believing he’s been dumped, he’s off to forge new adventures, maybe in the growing tulip bulb trade and with an eye on the prize in that market—the much-coveted white Breaker tulip with a striking red stripe. Also adding color are subsidiary characters like the tarty Annetje (Cara Delevingne), who, as a kind of finance-scene groupie, hangs around the tavern and the tulip bulb auctions; Gerrit (Zach Galifianakis), Jan’s manservant and pal; and Mattheus (Matthew Morrison), Jan’s more boisterous, wheeler-dealer friend.

The plot takes some promising turns. The deserted Maria learns that Willem has left her pregnant and now vulnerable should her employer Cornelis learn of her state. As Sophia knows of Maria’s situation but is aware that she too is vulnerable because Maria knows she’s been cheating with Jan, the two women hatch a plot to deceive Cornelis. Abetted by the lecherous Dr. Sorgh, Sophia announces her pregnancy to Cornelis while maintaining they are, per the doctor, forbidden to sleep in the same room and have sex during her pregnancy. The goal is to pass off Maria’s baby as Sophia’s, make Cornelis a proud father, and save Maria’s job. Complications and further twists ensue as the tulip market, including the abbess as an unexpected player, heats up.

Although the film’s scenery chews up much here, Tulip Fever—Flemish eye candy very pleasant to behold—does have some entertaining, surprising moments.

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