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‘Tulip Fever’ Review: This Bizarre, Long-Delayed Historical Romance Was Not Worth the Wait

Alicia Vikander and Dane DeHaan star in a messy, strange adaptation of the best-selling novel.

“Tulip Fever”

The Weinstein Company

The behind-the-scenes release date drama surrounding Justin Chadwick’s long-delayed and oft-moved “Tulip Fever” has managed to keep the beleaguered Weinstein Company release in the cultural zeitgeist for at least a year longer than it should have. It ping-ponged from a July 2016 release to a February 2017 release, which then moved to August, and then September.

It was not worth the wait. And, judging by the chopped-up feel of the final product (and word from audiences that saw earlier cuts), those well-publicized calendar moves only resulted in a film that’s been repeatedly edited into a bizarre, boring final product that packs as much punch as a light sneeze or a gentle cough. A fever it is not.

Based on Deborah Moggach’s best-selling novel of the same name (and scripted by the author with Tom Stoppard), “Tulip Fever” is set in 17th century Holland, during the height of the eponymous madness that set Amsterdam alight with outsized demands for the newly introduced flower. What blossomed was a speculative bubble of insane proportions, with prized bulbs fetching ludicrously high prices in a marketplace conducted in backrooms, bars, and brothels. People went crazy for the flowers, risking fortunes on single bulbs that may or may not bloom, and may or may not look good while doing it. That madness lords over the film and its characters, an environment that has gone topsy-turvy for pretty flowers and all the ephemeral charm they represent.

Strangely narrated by housemaid Maria (played by Holliday Grainger), the film follows the stilted marriage of wealthy peppercorn king Cornelius Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) and the charming Sophia (Alicia Vikander), an orphan who has gone from childhood convent to overseeing the couple’s domestic life. Initially played as a horny old fool who is desperate to make a baby with his young wife (a bedtime routine sequence illuminates the Sandvoorts’ clockwork lovemaking, along with Sophia’s profound boredom), Cornelius eventually becomes one of the film’s few sympathetic characters, a victim of both circumstance and unfathomable cruelty. Cornelius’ obsession with making an heir directs itself into another plan, one also centered on crafting something lasting: a pricey portrait of the man and his wife, painted by a young artist (Dane DeHaan) with nothing to his name.

“Tulip Fever”

The introduction of painter Jan Van Loos into the equation leads to the unfurling of a passionate, if baffling, romance between the poor artist and the rich wife. Vikander and DeHaan lack more than chemistry; they lack actual screen time, as the duo share the barest minimum of interaction (all overseen by Cornelius, incidentally), before deciding they’re in love. Played out in oddly schticky affectation, the pair realize their affection for each other at the exact same minute, leading to a dizzying run through the streets that wouldn’t be out of place in the most shameless romantic comedies. Undeterred by the mismatched pair, Chadwick tries to gloss over their absence of passion with a series of thrust-heavy sex scenes that lasciviously play up Vikander’s naked form, while DeHaan’s Jan stares dimly onward.

And that’s not all, as the overstuffed film also finds room to include yet another romance, this one involving Maria (if you wondered why she’s the narrator, well, this still doesn’t quite explain it) and local fishmonger William (Jack O’Connell). Their love affair is overshadowed by the tulip market, as William risks it all in hopes of giving the pair a better life, a sweet sentiment that’s soon ruined by a profound (and deeply stupid) misunderstanding. The pair exhibit a believable chemistry, one that only further highlights how force-fed the bond between Vikander and DeHaan is, no matter how much gusto they both put into it (DeHaan, to be sure, is excellent at fake-painting things and Vikander continues to be well-suited for lush historical offerings).

While the characters of “Tulip Fever” exist in a world ruled by passionate insanity, much of the film hinges on out-there coincidences and convoluted plot points that are big asks even in a world driven crazy by flowers. The various plotlines intersect late in the film (punctuated by distracting turns from Cara Delevingne and Zach Galifianakis, just for good measure). Essential pieces of narrative rely on ludicrous mishaps involving items as diverse as really long cloaks, fat bags of coins, and in one case, a priceless tulip bulb that is chopped up and eaten by a drunk. Reason may not rule in a tulip-mad Amsterdam, but that doesn’t mean tossing away actual logic like so many rotten stems. 

As the film limps toward its final act, its tone vacillates between sweeping romantic drama and slapstick comedy. Sophia and Jan cook up an idea that ensnares both the well-meaning Cornelius and a desperate Maria, using their individual traumas to launch a plan that is startlingly vicious (and occasionally played for wacky laughs). Love makes people do crazy things, and as overwrought and silly as “Tulip Fever” is in both execution and aim, the film embodies that sentiment in an unexpectedly compelling manner. It’s unfortunate that it takes 107 minutes to get there, but a final twist offers the film’s sole play for emotional resonance.

In other words, the fever breaks.

Grade: D+

“Tulip Fever” opens in wide release Friday, September 1.

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