What a peculiar curate’s egg this is and such a long time in the making. Based on the eponymous book by Deborah Moggach, who also penned The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s source, Tulip Fever is a period pudding of the sort that proves to be watchable in the viewing but entirely forgettable by the credits. There are handsome performances all round, each gloriously dressed, and some lovely aesthetic details but it all hinges on a dull and silly central story, which is dramatically overshadowed by more engaging sub-plots.
Once upon a time, Tulip Fever bore all the hallmarks of a film destined for greatness. Steven Spielberg snapped up the rights before Moggach’s book had even hit shelves and, by 2004, was ready produce a John Madden directed – Keira Knightley and Jude Law starring – would-be awards sensation in the vogue of Shakespeare in Love. But then, changes in UK tax law forced the project off the rails, where it remained for the best part of a decade. In 2014, Harvey Weinstein – whose recent fall from grace has done the film’s distribution no favours – revived the film with a new cast and team. That it has taken a further four years for the regenerated Tulip Fever to win a UK cinema release speaks volumes.
The film’s pedigree is remarkable. There’s a script co-written by Moggach and Sir Tom Stoppard, music from Danny Elfman and cinematography courtesy of In Bruges’ Eigil Bryld. Justin Chadwick directs and a glittering cast headline. Judi Dench is delightful as a pipe-smoking, market-savvy Abbess, Tom Hollander scene stealing as a ‘doctor of female mysteries’ and Christoph Waltz empathetic in the role of cuckolded husband Cornelius Sandvoort. Curiously, the film’s leading duo alone fail to impress. Alicia Vikander plays earnest young orphan Sophia, who is early on betrothed to the widowed Cornelius but soon finds herself weak at the knees for the artist he hires the paint their portrait – Dane DeHaan’s Jan van Loos. In each scene the pair share, Vikander presents more as aghast than allured, whilst DeHaan looks to have run up a flight of steps in advance of every take. Thankfully, a career best turn by Holiday Grainger, as Sophia’s ill-fated maid, saves us from too much forbidden romance pot-boiling.
Moggach drew her title from the Dutch mania for tulips that consumed traders in Amsterdam during the seventeenth century. It is in this blooming market that both book and film are set. This was an atmosphere in which tulip bulbs could fetch price tags ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman and an era of lunacy that appears to have infused the plot itself. As stories go, this one isn’t hard to follow but proves nigh on impossible to believe.
Though described as a ‘pompous old windbag’, Waltz plays Cornelius as a kindly senior, whose desire for a male heir is only natural for the period, with affectionate regard for his young wife. Awkward that the couple’s sex life is – Cornelius talks often of his ‘drowsy little soldier’ – Sophia’s draw to Jan lacks heat. Indeed, without Elfman’s score, one would be hard pressed to notice the moment they form a meaningful relationship. The second half of the film relies on absurd trickery and the ability of Sophia to fake pregnancy with a pillow down her dress.
On the subject of frocks, however, there are some undeniable beauties here. Few films have boasted so many fabulous ruffs, whilst Vikander looks divine whence clothed in an ultramarine, ultra expensive, shimmering gown. Dutch painting of the so-called Golden Age gained renown for its symbolic detail and there is plenty of that here. Chadwick frequently employs parallel editing to invite comparison between concurrent sequences and all is choreographed with heritage intent. To this end, at least, Tulip Fever is pleasing.