Talk about a checkered past. Tulip Fever was originally planned for 2004 with Shakespeare in Love’s John Madden directing. Didn’t happen. Then, in 2011, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) passed on it to do Les Miserables. Finally filmed in 2004, the movie languished after a poor test screening. Its release was pushed back again and again until the studio bit the bullet with a limited debut in September 2017.
Despite an impressive cast, headlined by three Oscar winners, and a script by multiple-award-winner Tom Stoppard, a true light of contemporary British theater, Tulip Fever got little notice and mostly negative reviews.
Which only goes to show. you can’t always trust the critics. And believe me, I acknowledge the irony of that confession.
Directed by Justin Chadwick and based on Deborah Moggach’s novel, it’s an impressive period piece set in 17th-century Amsterdam, where the tulip trade created an economic mania similar to the current tech frenzy.
The two major forces behind the camera are at home with costume dramas and period pieces. Stoppard won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love (’98) and a Tony for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a quirky take on Hamlet which he directed for the screen in 1990. Similarly, Chadwick’s first feature film, The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), was set in the age of lusty Henry VIII.
Chadwick fashions the look of Tulip Fever while Stoppard absolutely nails the characters and their unlikely story of love, art, comedy and (of course) tulips.
Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is rescued from an orphanage by a marriage proposal tendered by rich—and significantly older—merchant Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). The Dutchman is looking for a young woman to give him a male heir.
“Marriage is a safe harbor,” says the abbess of the orphanage (Judi Dench). “Give him an heir and everything will be fine. So love, honor and obey. It’s for the best.”
Sophia does not look convinced.
Three years later, there is no child, despite Cornelis’ nightly efforts.
Then comes handsome young artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), hired by Cornelis to paint a family portrait. Determined to remain faithful to her husband, Sophia is at first frightened by her attraction to van Loos, but love will out … despite the wealth and power of her husband.
This may sound like the backdrop to another melodrama of loss and betrayal, one doomed to tragedy, but one of the many delights of Tulip Fever is its rich humor and unexpected plot twists. In tandem with Sophia’s secret affair is another relationship, that of her housemaid Maria (Holliday Grainger) and young fishmonger Mattheus (Matthew Morrison). Eager to finance their marriage, Mattheus gets into the tulip market, hitting it big before disaster seems to ruin everything for him and his love.
Pregnant but unmarried, Maria is in a pickle. Mattheus thinks she’s having an affair with the painter. Sophia needs to be pregnant, lest her husband send her away. The two women join forces in a frantic cover-up, leading the cuckolded Cornelis to believe that his wife is carrying the child.
Drawn into the conspiracy of swollen bellies and morning sickness (both feigned and otherwise) is a salacious but willing physician (Tom Hollander) as well as van Loos’ tipsy friend Gerrit (an unrecognizable but typically funny Zach Galifianakis).
And there are the ups and downs of the tulip market, into which van Loos is also drawn. The desperate young painter seeks a financial windfall so that he and Sophia may flee to the New World.
In tone, Tulip Fever closely resembles Shakespeare in Love. More than just comic, however, the movie is also touching and poignant, particularly as we see the transformation both of Cornelis and Sophia toward the end.
You may have never even heard of it, but Tulip Fever is one of those surprise delights that often fly under the radar of even the most perspicacious viewer. Broaden your horizons and take a look.