Had it been released back in the fall of 2015, when it was originally scheduled to appear in theatres, “Tulip Fever” might have been dismissed as a failed attempt at a period drama, but it would have escaped the notoriety it’s built up over years of re-editing, repeatedly announced and retracted openings, and rumor-mongering. Now that it has finally been unleashed, the appropriate reaction is one of mild indifference. It’s neither very good nor terribly bad—just sadly mediocre. Of course, unless a director’s cut is lurking somewhere in Harvey Weinstein’s vault, we’ll never be able to determine how much his endless tinkering is responsible. It’s difficult to imagine, however, that this convoluted, curiously off-putting story could have worked anytime, in any form.
Adapted from Deborah Moggach’s novel by the author and playwright Tom Stoppard, the film, directed in workmanlike style by Justin Chadwick, is set in Amsterdam in the three-year period from 1634 to 1637, when the Dutch Republic was the mercantile capital of Europe. This was the time of the famous “tulip bubble,” when a mad market in bulbs of the flower raised their value to astronomical heights and led to a frenzy of trade in them. One person who didn’t toss away his fortune on them was wealthy merchant Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), a childless widower who preferred speculating in peppercorn and nutmeg. At the start of the film, he virtually purchases a young new bride, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), from a Catholic orphanage governed by a spunky old abbess (Judi Dench), who presides over the convent’s lucrative tulip-growing garden. Cornelis intends that she provide him with a son and heir.
That doesn’t work out—the old man’s spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (a fact he ascribes to divine punishment, since when his former wife was delivering a child, he prayed that if only one could survive, it be the child)—so instead he aims for a sort of immortality by commissioning a joint portrait of him and Sophia from up-and-coming young artist Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan). In the course of producing the painting, Jan and Sophia fall into love, or at least lust (though Vikander and DeHaan never manage to generate much chemistry between them). Poor Cornelis, who dotes on his wife—despite an offhand remark early on that he’ll set her aside if she fails to get pregnant—suspects nothing.
Meanwhile, the Sandvoort housemaid Maria (Holliday Grainger) falls for William (Jack O’Connell), the neighborhood fishmonger. He makes a fortune in the tulip market, but immediately loses it to a pickpocket, and in the ensuing melee is bonked on the head and dragooned into the navy. His sudden disappearance crushes Maria, especially since she is pregnant. When she threatens to tell Cornelis about Sophia’s dalliance with Jan unless her mistress helps her, the women concoct a ludicrous scheme: Sophia will pretend to be pregnant while Maria comes to term, and when the baby is born Sophia will pass it off as hers by Cornelis. An amusingly amoral doctor named Sorgh (Tom Hollander) is enlisted to aid in the plan.
Meanwhile Jan who’s already deep in debt, gambles in the tulip trade to raise a fortune sufficient to pay off everyone he owes and provide passage for him and Sophia to some distant place where they can start a new life together: the scheme involves Sophia pretending to die in childbirth and joining him after he sells his most prized and valuable bulb. Naturally things do not go as planned, due not only to Sophia’s attack of conscience but to the ineptitude of Jan’s servant Gerrit (Zach Galifianakis), who drunkenly provides an ironic twist intended to take your breath away but more likely to send you into derisive snorts (all set against the bursting of the tulip bubble). A brief postscript informs us of the fates of the various characters.
It’s doubtful that this strange tale could have made much of a cinematic splash even in 2008, when the financial background might have had some contemporary resonance. But in the present frenetic cut (with editing ascribed solely to Rick Russell, though one can only guess how many hands were actually involved, and periodic narration by Grainger’s Maria, apparently added in a desperate effort to bring some coherence to the plot), it comes across as errant nonsense. It certainly doesn’t help that the character who emerges as the most sympathetic of the lot is the cuckolded Cornelis; Sophia and Jan are both vapid and Maria a manipulative sort. Waltz also gives the best performance—a coy turn, to be sure, but one that at least shows some panache, while Vikander, DeHaan and Grainger come off as a boring bunch. Dench has some fun bringing an elfin touch to the abbess, and Hollander makes a genial scoundrel, but Galifianakis is truly awful. Perhaps the cutting room floor is the site of his better work.
On the other hand, the film is nicely appointed, despite a budget far lower than the one planned for a previously scheduled adaptation in 2004. Simon Elliott’s production design, Rebecca Alleway’s set decoration and Michael O’Connor’s costumes are all excellent, and Eigil Bryld’s cinematography gives the widescreen images a burnished look resembling paintings of the period. The camerawork is, however, often visually frantic, and together with the editing makes for an excess of period hubbub that seems intended to distract from the clumsy melodramatics. Danny Elfman, however, contributes a score so pleasantly understated that it seems at odds with the visuals.
The tulip frenzy of the 1630s was very real, but in this chaotically assembled incarnation Moggach’s tale of romantic intrigue set against the notorious seventeenth-century financial bubble generates little dramatic heat, let alone a cinematic fever.