According to some economists, the housing bubble of the aughts has nothing on the "tulip mania" of the 17th century. In seedy taverns outside the official Exchange, Dutch speculators frantically outbid one another for the bulbs of the still-exotic flowers, only to watch the market collapse with a bang in 1637.
It sounds like material for a great movie — one that is not Tulip Fever. Based on Deborah Moggach's novel, with a script by her and Tom Stoppard and direction by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), the film flails around trying to convince us it's depicting a heady, madcap, passionate time in its characters' lives. Somehow, though, it all feels about as exciting as a stroll through a tulip garden.
The problems start with a truncated opening that leaves key players undefined. While our protagonist appears to be Sophia (Alicia Vikander), an orphan sold in a loveless marriage to a much older spice merchant (Christoph Waltz), the story is narrated in voice-over by her maid, Maria (Holliday Grainger). It's a literary device in search of a purpose. Rather than offering an ironic or grounded counterpoint to Sophia, Maria remains a stock character, as poorly fleshed out as her wan, sulky mistress.
The plot hinges on the fates of two illicit couples, which in turn hinge on the tulip trade. Sophia gets a little less wan after hooking up with Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan), the artist hired to paint her portrait, while Maria's fishmonger boyfriend (Jack O'Connell) tries to secure their future with a foray into high-stakes tulip buying.
Lurching frequently from a solemn to a buffoonish tone, Tulip Fever goes right off the deep end in the scenes set in the underground tulip market. Full of spilling flagons, carousing blackguards and saucy wenches, they have a distinctly "Westworld" feel: history as rowdy theme park. Scenes of leaden dramatic irony playing out in this context — at one point, someone exuberantly predicts tulip prices will just keep climbing — are impossible to take seriously.
If the film's portrait of an economic "fever" isn't terribly nuanced, its portrait of an erotic fever is just dull. At one point, Jan finds himself meditating on Sophia's charms, yells, "I'm in love!" and dashes wildly through the streets in search of the object of his desire. That's about as feverish as it gets, unless you're into soft-core porn involving sumptuous costume play.
For all the self-conscious echoes of Romeo and Juliet, these one-note characters fail to generate chemistry or interest. In a star-studded film — even Zach Galifianakis turns up — only two performances stand out: Judi Dench as a sly, tulip-hoarding abbess; and Waltz as the merchant, the only person in the story who experiences on-screen character development. His childish glee at showing off his possessions — including his wife — is vilely amusing; his rue when he starts to grasp his own shallowness is halfway affecting.
Its release delayed for years, Tulip Fever plays like a film that's been meddled with: Scenes end too soon, tone vacillates and the ending is a desperate ploy to achieve closure on a story that never really started in the first place. There's something to be said for a prestige picture that doesn't take itself too seriously; viewers may find shades of Amadeus in the film's silly interludes. But Amadeus was driven by an operatic, larger-than-life central conflict. By contrast, the experience of watching Tulip Fever is less like an all-consuming fever than a fitful head cold.