The film completed principle photography some three years ago and has gone through a number of release date changes since 2014. The delays and cancellations led many to wonder exactly how bad it must be, and what, if anything, could save it.
The truth is that “Tulip Fever” is not the worst film you could see this year. But it is not likely to find its way into even the most forgiving film fan’s Top 10 either.
The story takes place in Amsterdam, sometime in the 17th century. The title is not a reference to some exotic Dutch disease, but rather the frenzy that was the tulip market in those days. Much like the dotcom bubble of the late nineties or the real estate bubble of the early 2000s, fortunes were made and lost on tulip bulbs.
Amid this frenzy, “Tulip Fever” unfolds around a Sophia (Alicia Vikander), an orphaned girl who agrees to marry a wealthy widower, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). She agrees to the marriage in order to secure passage for her younger siblings to relatives in America. No one ever asks why the children couldn’t live with Sophia and her husband in their big, empty mansion. The marriage is unexpectedly solid, despite the significant age difference. The only real trouble between them is infertility, which Cornelis seems perfectly willing to accept as his.
One of the first issues with “Tulip Fever” comes with the development of these two characters. The only hint of Sophia’s personality comes in conversations about virtue and vanity. It appears she is deeply religious, although we never see any particular examples of it.
More problematic is Waltz’s Cornelis. The film is narrated by the Sandvoorts’ housekeeper Maria, who makes multiple remarks about Cornelis and his disagreeable temper. This is told multiple times, but the only time it is shown is in one scene where he sighs with disappointment at their third fish dinner in a week. He asks Maria in a mocking tone, “Are you in love with the fishmonger?” Cornelis is a perfectly decent man, one who doesn’t even disparage his wife’s apparent barrenness in private conversation with a friend. His only real flaw is that he frequently refers to his “Little Soldier” as he desperately tries to conceive a child with his young wife.
The story is set in motion when Cornelis commissions a young artist to paint the couple’s portrait. Dane DeHaan (“Valerian”) plays Jan Van Loos who is immediately taken with Sophia. And, forgetting all about her religious convictions, she falls almost instantly in love with him. The two begin an affair that eventually throws both of their lives into upheaval. The relationship between the two, while obviously more age appropriate, feels forced. The chemistry between DeHaan and Vikander lacks any of the passion that would normally leave the audience rooting for these two to run away and live happily ever after. Instead, sympathy here shifts to Cornelis and what might become of him if this affair is ever discovered.
There are other side plots as well. Maria the housekeeper (Holliday Grainger) is, in fact, in love with the fishmonger, William (Jack O’Connell). Their relationship is the brightest spot in the film. At least until it isn’t. Their story spins the film into a different direction, adding drama to an already dramatic tale.
Judi Dench has a small but significant role as the Mother Abbess who runs the orphanage where Sophia’s story began. She and her abbey are also in on the tulip market. Her involvement manages to affect Sophia’s life on two different sides. Dench doesn’t do anything extraordinary with the role, although she does provide both comedy and context to certain key moments.
There are also small parts for some recognizable faces. Zach Galifianakis plays the drunk acquaintance of Jan, causing chaos wherever he goes. Tom Hollander appears as a doctor of female issues who enjoys his job a little too much. Kevin McKidd, Matthew Morrison, and Cara Delevigne also make appearances.
None of the performances are overtly bad, although no one stands out as praiseworthy. And that basically sums up “Tulip Fever.” It is not quite good enough to be fine, but it isn’t exactly terrible. It suffers from an identity crisis, not quite knowing what genre it wants to live in. It isn’t romantic. Sometimes it tries to be funny, but it isn’t a comedy. The name alone suggests something lighter than it ultimately is. But yet, it isn’t fully a drama either.
Some of the blame lies with director Justin Chadwick, who couldn’t keep focus on anything. It’s disorganized and slightly confusing, with sequences that feel out of place and far too coincidental. The script was written by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard, who wrote such films as “Shakespeare in Love” and “Empire of the Sun.” It’s unclear whether the problems with this film begin with his work, but this is far from the quality we’ve seen in earlier screenplays.
In the end, “Tulip Fever” would have been far more memorable if it had been permanently shelved. Three years of delays created an expectation that this couldn’t live up to. The story is lifeless and cold. The only made bright spots are technical prowess, lush costuming, and a pretty enough score by Danny Elfman.