Tulip Fever (R) ★★½

Christoph Waltz and Alicia Vikander star in “Tulip Fever” Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

🌷Tulip Fever Never Blooms

Amsterdam in the 17th century (1634) is the setting for this historical fiction film that tells the story of tulip mania, aristocrats, servants, orphans, portrait painters, deception, betrayal, and consequences. Having read the bestselling book by author Deborah Moggach, I found the book both engaging and captivating. Unfortunately, the film adaption never reaches full bloom, but rather wilts, due to a diluted (over-watered) script with extensively over-pruned scenes—and alas—no rays of sunshine on the horizon.

The stellar slice of the film is the set design and costuming of 1634 Amsterdam with its bustling canals, ships, pubs, and carnival-type atmosphere along with the drama of tulip back-room mania. One does feel as though they’ve been transported back to that era, which is a major achievement. Unfortunately, with all of Holland’s beauty, there isn’t one wide shot of the tulip fields in full bloom. Talk about a missed opportunity.

To be fair, the story is overly depressing. A wealthy elderly man—two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz—Cornelius Sandvoort, known as “the King of Peppercorns,” clad in an enormous “Dutch Master” frilly collar, sashays into an orphanage with the sole intent of purchasing a teen orphan that will become his bride. His end-game is to impregnate his child-bride in order to conceive a son that will serve as heir to his fortune.

He’s met at the entrance by the Abbess of St. Ursula, Judi Dench, who not only plays mother to the children, but she also has a modern side-hustle − tulips. She’s been growing and brokering tulips for years and knows the business inside and out. Cornelius pays for a beautiful teen, age fifteen, played by 2016 Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl). She’s told by the Abbess, “You have been an orphan girl on a stormy sea. Marriage is a safe harbor. Love, honor, and obey.” Cornelius takes her to his home as if he’s purchased a new puppy.

Yes, with this set-up, we cringe, as we all know what’s looming and are quickly subjected to the obligatory monotonous evening ritual of boring sex in a loveless marriage. The actors aren’t supposed to have chemistry; therefore, the scenes are rigid, awkward, and bland. After three years of this routine, and continual prayer, Sophia has no baby to show for her efforts. Cornelius is fed up with the situation as well; he confides in a friend, and the friend advises, “Send her back to the orphanage.”

A frustrated Cornelius elects to cut his losses by having their portrait painted, so people will at least know that even though there were no children, he was a “lucky old dog” to have such a beautiful young wife. Sophia’s not so sure about the idea but is intrigued from the get-go when she meets the young artist Jan Van Loos, played by Dane DeHaan. He, too, is intrigued with her luminousness beauty.

Cornelius’s behavior during the portrait sessions is atrocious; he flaunts his wealth, even saying to the painter, “Did you know that I bought my wife?” Sophia is reduced to a pile of cold porridge by that dagger. We now despise the brute even more and root for Sophia to find a way out of this appalling situation. Jan is not only enchanted by her beauty but now wants to rescue this poor girl.

As a result, Jan takes charge of the sessions, shouting at Cornelius to “Stay quiet and be still.” He also begins to stir up buried emotions in Sophia, leaving her with no choice but to discover their meaning. They soon have a clandestine affair that should save the film, but their overly edited scenes are a major disappointment. From this point, the film spirals downward, never regaining its footing.

Another subplot involves Maria (Holliday Grainger), Cornelius’s maid, and her fish-monger boyfriend William (Jack O’Connell). Together, they at times do steal the film. Oddly, Maria also lends voice-over as the narrator, which only draws us further away from the central characters.

Does Sophia ever have a child? Does she live happily ever after with her lover? Those questions are somewhat answered, but some remain frustratingly left open. More narrative dialogue is needed, and more concentration on the main characters would have helped this film tremendously. We need to care, and we simply aren’t given enough character development to do so.

The Bottom-line? Beautiful set design can’t save the wilted scenes and over-pruned dialogue.

Credits: Directed by Justin Chadwick Screenplay, Deborah Moggach, and Tom Stoppard

Cast: Christoph Waltz as Cornelius Sandvoort. Alicia Vikander as Sophia Sandvoort, Cornelius’s wife. Dane DeHaan as Jan Van Loos. Jack O’Connell as William. Zach Galifianakis as Gerrit. Judi Dench as The Abbess of St. Ursula, Holliday Grainger as Maria. Matthew Morrison as Mattheus.

 Studio: Weinstein Studios

 Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

* Author’s note, Tulip Fever has been a troubled film since its delayed release going back to 2014. No film critics, including me, were able to pre-screen the film. We were also under an embargo with an exact time Friday, September 1st at 8:00AM ET and 5:00AM PT of when we could write anything about this film. Strangely, all of the promotion quotes for the film are from book authors.

Sarah Knight Adamson© September 2, 2017