Tulip Fever

2017-11-10 06:58
 

What it's about:

Set in 17th century Amsterdam, Tulip Fever tells the story of Sophia, an orphaned girl who marries a much older merchant named Cornelis Sandvoort but as her failure to conceive a child for Corenlis tears their already friendly but ultimately loveless marriage further and further apart, she meets and falls in love with Jan van Loos, the young painter that Cornelis hires to take their portrait. Sophia and Jan's illicit love affair soon turns out to be only the beginning of a series of events that spins all their lives out of control; all revolving around the rather peculiar practice of investing ludicrous amounts of money around tulip bulbs in Amsterdam's underground market.

What we thought:

Coming hot on the heels of a racy "Red Band" trailer, Tulip Fever is a hot-blooded bodice-ripper that is as unafraid of nudity as it is of increasingly insane plot twists and heightened melodrama. This is the good news. What sadly lets the film down, though, is its utter refusal to settle on a tone; bouncing from ripe and lusty romantic shenanigans to farcical misunderstandings to witty, solidly observed character-comedy to tragic heartbreak with all the control and subtlety of Johnny Depp in the last four Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Taken on their own, the film's dramatic elements are effective, thanks in no small part to typically beautiful lead performances by Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz – Vikander especially, as her fragile beauty only amplifies her already uncanny ability to convey real heartbreak a hundred-fold. When her heart breaks so does yours. The weighty narration by Holiday Granger, who is otherwise very good in a crucial supporting role, does let the side down somewhat but the screenplay by Deborah Meggach (on whose novel it is based) and Tom Stoppard (Tom Stoppard!) gives great actors moments to really strut their stuff.

The problem, though, is that these dramatic elements are rapped around a plot that only really works as a farce; the kind of comedy of errors that only really works when you really lean into its various absurdities. And, to be sure, the film is hardly lacking in a sense of humour, let alone a sense of fun. It just never quite embraces its own silliness enough and somewhere between the script and veteran period-filmmaker Justin Chadwick's direction, a real uneasiness sets in the minute the film tries to switch from farce to high-drama. 

It's impossible to talk about the conflicting tones without going into specific plot spoilers but suffice it to say that building drama on the back of utterly bonkers farcical plot contrivances and a sexually-charged romance - both of which are just trashy enough to be really rather good fun (take note, Fifty Shades of Whatever) - is a hell of a trick to pull off and Tulip Fever is just nowhere near confident enough to do so.

Still, even if the film is less than the sum of its parts, it is just about worth it for these parts – and not just body parts – alone. The cast is almost entirely exceptional, with only Dane Dehaan failing to bring much spark to his role. Dehaan's chemistry with Alicia Vikander is just about good enough to sell their romance but his character is a bit of a non-entity and Dehaan is just way too drippy in the role to ever do much to counteract that – he is, as a rule, an actor who only works in very specific roles and this ain't one of them.

The rest of the cast is every bit as good as you expect them to be but there are still some surprises to be had. While Christoph Waltz doesn't get the chance to really bring out his impeccable comedic chops, he does get to stretch himself dramatically as a character that is all but entirely the opposite of the supremely self-assured, powerful characters he normally plays. Cornelis is no Hans Landa but Waltz is no less mesmerising here than he is in everything else he has been in. 

On the other hand, after being quite awful in the generally extremely awful Suicide Squad and after being swamped by CGI in Luc Besson's otherwise quite enjoyable Valerian, Cara Delevigne is electrifying here in her small role as a fiery prostitute who inadvertently sets much of the film's plot in motion. Whether she's a good actor remains to be seen but she has at least, and at long last, proven herself to be a wildly charismatic and lively screen presence. 

It's not just an actor's piece, though. Tulip Fever may be a mess of tone and storytelling but its set-design, costumes and keen attention to detail brings 17th century Amsterdam to vivid life, while elevating what could easily have been very stagy into something nicely cinematic. And, there's just no getting past it: the film's tonal right-turns may have given me mental whiplash but I had a blast with most of the individual scenes. The dramatic bits – well, one in particular – are genuinely moving but the film is especially fun when it leans hard into its trashier elements. 

It's an extremely bumpy ride, full of abrupt turns and grinding gear-changes but it's kind of fun while it lasts.


NEXT ON CHANNELX
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.