Released: September 2017
Director: Justin Chadwick
Set in 17th century Amsterdam, in the midst of a collective mania for tulips that would shortly come to an abrupt end, ruining many businessmen, Tulip Fever was initially filmed and marketed as a new, fun costume drama from Oscar-winning play- and screen-writer Tom Stoppard, writer of successful and popular films Shakespeare in Love and Anna Karenina. However, 2 years after it’s initially scheduled release date, it’s suddenly being pushed as “the year’s sexiest thriller“. The film has gone through at least 6 scheduled release dates, and been shown to countless focus groups and critics in that time, and it has clearly be re-cut and re-focused with each iteration, leaving a film with little cohesion, no shape and the worst pacing I’ve ever seen.
It essentially breaks down into two films, the first half being a far too long romantic drama with extra corsets, and yes, some protracted sex scenes, and the second half, which is clearly where all the Stoppard-ness is concentrated, is a farcical con film, with Shakespearean quantities of identity swapping and scheming. Whoever enjoys one half is not likely to enjoy the other, and frankly, it’s hard to imagine anyone actually enjoying either half. Scenes with no substance at all are drawn out for as long as possible, and scenes with a genuine possibility of character exploration or quality plotting are rushed through like the director is embarrassed by them.
The story is that of Sophia (Alicia Vikander), an orphan bought from the convent by old, rich Cornelis (Christoph Waltz) to be his wife and provide him with an heir. Cornelis commissions a painting of the couple for posterity, and, despite not a word passing between them, Sophia and the young painter Jan van Loos (Dane DaHaan)fall in love. The plan that Sophia devises to extricate herself from her husband involves her servant girl Maria, a fake pregnancy and investing in the tulip market, and that isn’t even as absurd as the problems that occur during it’s execution.
There are flashes of potential, especially in the criss-crossing plot of the third act, but it just doesn’t work. The many chops and changes leave people entering and leaving on odd notes- in one scene, a man we know by sight is talked about by name, without the film seemingly being aware the audience have no idea who that name applies to yet. In another, a majot plot twist involves a main character waking up and being told by two people “you’re safe, you’re in our house”. The fact that we have never seen these two people before, and never do again, is a pretty heavy hint that there were some brutal cuts to this film, as are the entire scenes in the trailer that never made it to the main feature. Knowing how tightly plotted previous Stoppard films have been, with stories hinging on tiny details, and call backs and foreshadowing expertly hidden in innocuous scripting, it’s no surprise this film has been left a mess if it’s had so many post-completion re-cuts.
The main cast are woeful in their roles. Alicia Vikander doesn’t seem able to change her face in any way, which in a part that requires showing conflict an desire in equal measure is a serious weakness. Dane DeHaan is utterly unconvincing as a romantic lead. Christoph Waltz does his best, but his character is so poorly defined, his acting ends up making no sense. Is he a villain, buying a young bride just to continue his name, or is he a sympathetic man, trying to do his best by his new wife, but unable to think outside the constrains of 17th century patriarchy? Either of these would be good ideas to explore, and Waltz could easily do them justice, but he seems to just switch from one to the other from scene to scene, with no hint of consistent development, and no commitment to him being one thing or the other. It is vaguely hinted at that when, on doctors orders, he cannot have sex with his wife for several months, he leaves to go and set up with another woman in another city for that period of time, but that’s not actually clear, and when paired with his treatment of Sophia in the rest of the film, seems very jarring.
The supporting cast, by contrast, are usually very good and much better than the film deserves. It doesn’t matter that their parts are poorly written as they are not in the film long enough for that to be too obvious, and the best of them are clearly having fun. Tom Hollander is wonderful as the roguish, unscrupulous Doctor Sorgh, managing to bring the only smiles of the film just by saying his name, Judi Dench fits the role of sharp business-abbess perfectly, even when her motivations are often blurry, and Zach Galifianakis also manages to lift his hapless sidekick role above the poor dialogue he is given. The less said about Cara Delevingne the better.
Apparently the book that this is based on was inspired by Dutch art, and that is something it does manage to homage well. Sadly, this is not a popular thing to homage, and very few people are going to spot the framing of scenes as famous Dutch paintings, even with a key character being a painter. Frankly, even if everyone watches does both spot and appreciate it, it’s definitely not enough to save the film from a story that is as poorly illuminated as a Rembrandt painting.