Overview: A married woman and an artist hired to paint her portrait fall in love and hatch a plan to be together. Paramount Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 107 minutes
Longing for Love: One distinct challenge of the period film is the inability for people in love, regardless of marital status, to say how they truly feel about one another. This longing dictates a challenge for actors, given that one of their most direct avenues of communication, that of dialogue, is immediately removed from their toolbox. This can do one of two things, either create a palpable sense of longing or leave the audience wondering why they actually care for one another. Tulip Fever, as one can tell from the trailer, must meet this challenge, as one of the pair happens to be married when meeting their soon to be romantic partner.
This Fever Has No Heat: And therein lies the major issue with the film. For it to fully work, the relationship between the married lady Sophia Sandvoort (Alicia Vikander) and passionate young artist Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan) must be believed, and more importantly, must be felt. The scenes leading up to the consummation of this relationship unfortunately fail to land, so the tension is not felt outside of the fact that two attractive people are staring at one another. This “fever”, an obvious metaphor used by the shockingly bland screenplay, is spoken rather than experienced. The relationship between Sophia’s maid, Maria (Holliday Grainger) and Willem (Jack O’Connell) does the film no favors as it easily overshadows the supposed passion from the protagonists. Grainger, at home in previous period pieces such as Great Expectations, easily slides into this role and outshines the stars surrounding her. This is not to say Vikander and DeHaan are bad here. Frankly, the performances from this star-studded cast are all capable. There are no poor performances, but simply a great deal of wasted opportunity. And oh, the opportunities! Judi Dench, Christoph Waltz, all wasted!
At Least It’s Pretty: Aside from the romance, another thing one should look for in period pieces is aesthetic beauty. Here, Tulip Fever delivers. The costume design, from Michael O’Connor, is absolutely stunning. This is a welcome distraction from the stale characterization on display. If your eyes ache for color and swirling fabric, there is plenty to devour here. Some of these colors actually play a part in the plot, so it is important to notice this besides pure beauty. The set design, arranged by production designer Simon Elliot with contributions from Set Decorator Rebecca Alleway and Supervising Art Director Bill Crutcher and his crew, matches the costumes in realism and intricacy. The streets of the Netherlands come alive, even as our characters are rushing through them. The house of Cornelis Sandvoort feels lived-in and this becomes a focus in the third act, when he leaves for a short period. These pieces of the film are really what hold it together, as opposed to performances and story.
Nothing Makes Sense: Given how long it has taken to release Tulip Fever, it is unsurprising that you can feel the edits to the screenplay. Holliday Grainger is saddled with blunt expository dialogue in the form of voiceover, which appears at seemingly random moments in the story. There is a great analogy for the fever of new love and that of the tulip frenzy, but sadly, it is not represented here. This is truly a surprise given the talent behind the page, in Deborah Maggoch and Tom Stoppard. One can imagine that this tulip fever plotline would have flourished if given the time it needed. Unfortunately, the obsession with tulips and the main characters knowledge of it are thoroughly rushed, and may leave the audience chuckling at the incoherency. Another issue here is characterization and the lack of understanding character’s motives. This could be a problem with adaptation and may have been solved in the novel through internal monologues. Unfortunately, in the film, none of this is explained and it has the effect of distancing from characters we are meant to care about. This, along with a truly strange change in tone in the third act (from drama to farce and back again) , leaves the audience scratching their heads instead of feeling something, anything!
Overall: Tulip Fever is not offensively bad. It is also not memorable, save for some beautiful costumes and sets. The assembled cast, full of intense talent, is never given a chance to shine due to obvious edits, a lack of characterization, and painful exposition. It is worth a watch if you absolutely love period films, but may leave you wondering what happened just a few minutes after the credits roll.
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Editor’s Note (9/19): Edited for Content