Director: Justin Chadwick Starring: Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Dane Dehaan, Holiday Grainger, Jack O'Connell Year: 2017 Rating: R
Over the past few years, Alicia Vikander has steadily been stepping in on Keira Knightley’s turf as the star of what feels like every other period drama that comes out, even winning an Oscar for her role in The Danish Girl. The following year (last year) she co-starred alongside her real-life boyfriend Michael Fassbender in The Light Between Oceans, which ultimately garnered no recognition from the Academy or box office. This year Vikander has Tulip Fever and judging from the final product, recent history is sure to repeat itself.
Based on the novel of the same name, Tulip Fever explores a forbidden romance set against the backdrop of 17th century Amsterdam where people gathered in frenzies at underground auctions to buy and sell rare Tulip bulbs in hopes of striking it rich in the blossoming flower market. The rest of the setup is sound enough. Vikander is Sophia, a young orphan who is handpicked by a wealthy peppercorn entrepreneur named Cornelis (Christoph Waltz) who’s looking for a wife to bare an heir that can carry on his legacy.
Sophia understands her role in this new life and tries repaying Cornelis by giving him what he wants. However, after months of nothing (except Waltz creepily referencing his “little soldiers”), Cornelis hires an up-and-coming painter to capture the couple’s likeness. He figures if his legacy cannot live on through blood, then it shall live on through artwork.
That’s where we meet Dane Dehaan, a.k.a. Jan Van Loos, who enters Sophia’s life as said painter. Almost instantly the two strike up a titillating, illicit romance a la Romeo and Juliette that supposedly tears at Sophia, who still feels she owes a debt to Cornelis. Unfortunately, the forbidden relationship plays more like friends with benefits than a strained, bittersweet romance. They hardly speak to each other and even when they do, there’s never any meaningful context.
Of course a lot of that is due to the lack of character development for Jan. Other than being a painter, we learn almost nothing about him. Though Dehaan does fine work here, it’s impossible to buy that Sophia loves him at all. After they finally revealed their feelings for each other, I laugh out loud when I should have been crying and nodding my head in teary affirmation.
The lack of development on the parts of the central affair and Jan’s character can be traced back to the looming issue with Tulip Fever. It’s wildly overgrown. At times it feels like three separate movies clumsily playing over each other, with neither receiving the full span of attention they deserve.
Outside Jan and Sophia, a secondary romance is taking place between Maria (Holliday Grainger), Sophia and Cornelis’s servant, and her salesman boyfriend, Brok (Jack O’Connell). The film spends a good chunk of time following Brok as he learns to work the underworld of the Tulip trade. Then, out of nowhere, he’s dumped off somewhere and we don’t see him again for most of the rest of the film.
The back half of Tulip Fever follows Jan as he too learns the tricks of the Tulip trade. Of course he only wants to make enough money so he and Sophia can run away together after hatching an ludicrous plan to get away from Cornelis. Unfortunately, we spend more time with Jan as he retraces Brok’s footsteps than we ever do with Jan and Sophia together.
So much is happening in Tulip Fever that the different through lines repeatedly resort to sitcom-style gags in order to explain important plot points. Consequently, the film shifts between its natural, dark tone and an inappropriately comedic one. A character might be dying upstairs in one room while the doctor of all people is downstairs trying to stop other people from going into that room. I could argue that Tulip Fever is as much a dark comedy as it is a straight period drama.
Perhaps the most interesting thing in this film is Waltz’s Cornelis. There are allusions to his troubled past, but now he’s trying to repent for his sins. Automatically he is a more established character than some of the recent villains that Waltz has played. Walking out, I kept wishing that the movie had just been about him instead.
What did you all think of Tulip Fever? Did you check it out during this slow Labor Day weekend? Or did you catch something else? Let me know in the comments below!