TULIP FEVER * *
Starring Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Christoph Waltz, Zach Galifianakis and Judi Dench. Screenplay by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard. Directed by Justin Chadwick.
Shot in 2014 and subjected to years of tinkering from producer Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein, constantly shuffled release dates and bizarre embargo demands turned this prestige-y adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s bestseller into a running joke amongst media folks long before it ever saw the light of a projector. Unsurprisingly, Tulip Fever arrives rife with the bad dubbing, erratic pacing, multiple voice-over narrators and truncated running time of a movie someone obviously tried to salvage in the editing room, but the problems with this project are far too fundamental for any post-production patches to staunch the bleeding.
Set during a strange footnote in seventeenth century history when Amsterdam’s financial markets exploded with inflated backroom speculations on tulip bulbs, the film tries to thematically link this irrational exuberance with that of a doomed love affair between an unhappily married woman (Alicia Vikander) and the free-spirited artist (Dane DeHaan) hired to paint her portrait. Plucked from an orphanage to provide an heir to a wealthy, blowhard widower (Chistoph Waltz), she endures the older man’s desultory trysts –he refers to his penis as “my little soldier”—but yearns for her passionate painter.
All the editing tricks in the world can’t fix bad casting, and Vikander and DeHaan are two of the coldest fish in the business. These two go through the motions of energetic humping and amour fou while wearing the vaguely bored expressions of an attractive young couple waiting in line at Starbucks. Vastly more interesting are Holliday Grainger as Vikander’s lusty handmaiden and Jack O’Connell as her secret fishmonger beau. He’s the one who tries his luck at all this tulip business and introduces us to an all-business abbess, hilariously played by Judi Dench.
My goodness, there’s a lot of plot here. An elaborate fake pregnancy is staged to cover for a hidden real one while mistaken identities lead to heartbreak and a shanghaied stint in the Dutch Navy, and that’s before we get into the fate of the most valuable tulip bulb in the world. There’s also a crooked horndog doctor played by Tom Hollander, a quick appearance from DeHaan’s Valerian co-star Cara Delevingne as a ratty prostitute and drunk Zach Galifianakis for comic relief (he’s not half as funny as Dench.) The movie tears through it all at the breathless pace of a picture where all the connective tissue has been left on the cutting room floor and the vast majority of scene transitions feature one character or another running up and down the same damn road.
Director Justin Chadwick previously helmed high-minded snoozers The Other Boleyn Girl and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, bringing a stodgy, Oscar-bait sensibility that’s firmly at odds with the pulpy, bodice-ripping plot mechanics. (This is one of those cases in which I wish I’d stayed home and read the book, which sounds like a hoot.) Tulip Fever needed to be… well, feverish. I kept thinking of Tom Tykwer’s bonkers Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer as an example of the go-for-broke delirium that would have kept this fever from feeling more like a hangover.