It’s no big secret that not all films are created equal. Transformers: The Last Knight‘s budget is high enough to fund several indie movies, while films like Krisha, Blue Ruin, or even Get Out take viewers on incredible emotional journeys with budgets under five million dollars. On paper, Tulip Fever has a lot going for it: a talented cast featuring multiple Oscar winners, a competent director, and a spot on The Weinstein Company’s fall slate. Perhaps it’s wrong to get excited over a movie with all that potential — but them’s the breaks. Shouldn’t a picture with so much going for it have a leg up on movies like The Trip to Spain? Yet even with these many advantages, it’s hard not to walk away from Tulip Fever thinking, “This movie should have been better.”
Tulip Fever takes place in 17th century Amsterdam. Our orphaned and destitute protaganist, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), agrees to marry a well-to-do gentleman, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), so that she may create a better life for her young sisters. Cornelis is rich, considerably older, and insistent on fathering a son who may carry on his legacy. As the years go by without a child, Sophia’s inability to conceive makes her expendable. As the tension mounts, Waltz brings in a local artist, Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan), to paint the couple’s portrait. Younger, teeming with passion, and considerably more handsome, Jan falls for Sophia and they begin a torrid affair.
The situation becomes soap operatic when the secret lover of Maria the housekeeper, Willem (Jack O’Connell), spots Sophia and Jan in a late night tryst. Mistaking Sophia for Maria, the heartbroken Willem leaves Amsterdam before learning that he is a father-to-be. With Maria fearing the shame of a bastard child, and Sophia unable to conceive, the women devise a plan to pass the child off as Cornelis’ heir.
You don’t get very far into Tulip Fever before feeling that something is not quite right. As we’re introduced to the film’s many characters, the issue becomes clear: the performances feel out of sync. Tulip Fever has a charming fairy-tale quality to it, and you can tell that most of the actors are having fun delivering playful performances (which is fine, I’m always up for a whimsical historical tale), but then there are moments and performances that come off as gravely serious. Every now and then you may get away with a performance that’s out of whack with the rest of your film (see Peter Sellers’ comic relief in Lolita); the issue becomes a major problem when the worst offender is your movie’s lead.
Vikander feels like she’s in a different film. Her performance never quite syncs up with the rest of the cast, coming off as Hamlet in a world made up of Rosencrantz and Guildensterns. Everyone else (aside from Judi Dench) is clearly having a ball — and make no mistake about it, this is a loaded cast. Here’s a list of names that would make any film better: Judi Dench, Zach Galifianakis, Cara Delevingne, Michael Smiley, Matthew Morrison, and David Harewood (shout out to casting for sprinkling so many black extras into the film’s public spaces). That’s a lot of talent to compress into 107-minutes, and most of the actors don’t have much to do. One can’t help but think there is a longer and more ambitious director’s cut sitting in some weary editor’s office.
One character that gets more than their share of screen time is Dane DeHaan’s Jan. In Tulip Fever, DeHaan delivers his second disappointing romantic lead of the summer. Sophia and Jan don’t make for charming, believable, or even vaguely interesting lovers. Sure, we know they’re smitten because Jan’s face practically becomes the heart-eyes emoji every time he looks Sophia’s way, and the story tells our brain that they’re falling for one another, but our hearts never get the memo. How many whiffs at leading man status do we give DeHaan before Hollywood makes him take a time-out next to former Next Big Thing Taylor Kitsch?
So what does the Tulip Fever get right? The movie looks great. You’ll want to sit back and soak up the sets, the costumes, and the cast’s beautiful faces. Tulip Fever paints a stunning portrait of 17th Century Amsterdam, as director Justin Chadwick packs every inch of the frame with intricate details, and every scene bursts with vitality. Fishmongers call out from grimy stoops, minstrels busk on crowded street corners, and harlots prowl the local pub; it’s all quite impressive, until you begin noticing that the film keeps recycling the same couple of locations. Suddenly Tulip Fever‘s expansive world feels like a well-decorated stage. It’s a nitpick, but one I wouldn’t notice had the characters and plot kept me more engaged.
Tulip Fever is an odd movie to sum up. It feels like a hacked-together version of a longer and more cohesive film. The plot centres on sit-com caliber hijinks, but the movie is not funny enough to work as a comedy. It also lacks the emotional weight to work as an effective drama, and the romantic leads feel devoid of passion. However you look at the film, there are other movies that offer the same things, only better.
If you enjoy the visual splendour found in period films, and are seeking a casual afternoon watch, then there are elements in this movie for you to enjoy. If you’re in the mood for eye-candy, then you could do a lot worse; Tulip Fever offers several attractive leads, eye-catching production design, and a ridiculously overqualified cast. Perhaps not judging it by its cast’s pedigree would even result in a more enjoyable viewing experience. After all, Tulip Fever isn’t unwatchable; it’s just disappointing.