Low grade Tulip Fever finally breaks, not fun enough for trash

Liam Lacey

Rumours of the existence of Tulip Fever movie can now be confirmed. The historical drama, which became something of a social media joke after two years of release announcements and postponements, now officially arrives in theatres.

Based on a popular novel from 2000 by Deborah Moggach (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Tulip Fever, which was first optioned by Steven Spielberg, went into pre-production and was abandoned for financing reasons years ago. It was then  resurrected by producer Harvey Weinstein, and completed in 2014. After a couple of years of delays, it began to sound like it should be retitled the Chronic Tulip Malaise.

 Waltz and Vikander. All the tulips in the world can't save this marriage

Waltz and Vikander. All the tulips in the world can't save this marriage

(And even now, the release has a taint to it, with a distributor’s embargo on reviews until 1 p.m. on the day of release – which means the earliest attendees will have had no advance reports on which to base their ticket-buying decision).

On paper, it has always sounded promising, at least as bodice-ripping entertainment. The movie stars Alicia Vikander as a young wife in 17th-century Amsterdam in an arranged marriage to an older man (Christoph Waltz).  She takes up with a strapping young portrait painter lover (Dane DeHaan), and gambles on the 1630s' tulip market so the two can run away together.

As well as Vikander and Waltz, the cast includes Judi Dench and Zach Galifianakis. Although director Justin Chadwick didn't exactly inspire with The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), there's the promise of a script, credited to celebrated playwright, Tom Stoppard.

As it happens, Tulip Fever is neither good nor terrible. It's just mediocre, jumbled, and neither serious enough for history nor fun enough for trash.

What we have is an obvious attempt to repeat the recipe of Shakespeare in Love, the 1999 upset Oscar winner: a costume drama with a classy cast, some nudity, and a tone aimed between romance and bawdy romp. But the film, in its current form, seems to have been second-guessed into tony dullness. Stoppard's famed wit is largely undetectable, and the narrative momentum thwarted by choppy editing choices. There's a come-and-go voice-over narration that's supposed to tie the story parts together but doesn't really help.

Also, it's a problem that Christoph Waltz, as the aging husband, is several magnitudes more charismatic than the young love interest (Dehane). Also, the "tulip fever" of the title is never really well-explained: It involves too many similar scenes of drunks and wenches yelling bids for bulbs in the backs of taverns.

That said, Tulip Fever is a pretty movie, with cinematographer Eigil Byld (House of Cards, In Bruges) evoking Dutch golden age painting, fish and fruit on platters, women in scarves and men in black wide-brimmed hats and white ruffs, scenes of bustling markets around the canals (built in studio) or on the beach.

Dench as an abbess who grows tulips, Galifianakis as a drunken clown, Tom Hollander as a doctor/abortionist - all have their moments, in a movie where the secondary characters hold most of the interest. The most compelling performance is that of the maid, played by the radiant Holliday Grainger (she played Estella in 2012's Great Expectations). She effectively steals the film, for what it's worth. Her predicament -- that of a pregnant servant whose lover has disappeared -- holds far more interest than the tepid central adultery drama and the ups-and-downs of the bulb business.  

Tulip Fever is directed by Justin Chadwick and written by Tom Stoppard. Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Christopher Waltz, Judi Dench and Zach Galifianakis. Tulip Fever screens at the Cineplex Varsity theatre.


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Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather