IT’S MID 17TH century Amsterdam and the money making pastime of predicting the rarity of a tulip from its bulb is all the rage. Picture the hustle and bustle and noise of a 20th century stock exchange, or a nineteenth century auction, toss in a bit of Victorian bawdry and market banter, and you’ve got the picture. It’s rough and wild and replete with glorious surprises, which enfolds the rich and controlled presence of the church into its complexity. Against this backdrop, a wealthy spice merchant buys a beautiful young orphan from the nunnery to be his wife, and there follows a beautiful tale of sacrifice and disappointment, love and fear, chance and tulips that will make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a painting by Dutch master Jan Vermeer.
The film is beautifully crafted with a great sense of research and intelligence. It offers the texture of Dutch 16th century life that doesn’t seem to miss a beat in its reflections – and there’s everything there, from the propensity of Dutch artists to work on wood, to a visual comment on the Jewish and black communities of the city at the time. There’s an understanding of class hierarchy and costume rules, as well as of the ignorance of men in matters of gynaecology. And there’s a tiny performance by veteran Judi Dench as the authoritative abbess, pipe in hand, that pulls it all together with wit and wisdom.
It’s a rich and heady tale that presents the older gentleman – the king of peppercorns – who knows a thing or six about what makes a good nutmeg, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) as the ultimate hero: the widower who in spite of great hurt sees an understanding of truth and is able to reflect generously on the value of wealth in a way that seems to contradict his station or stereotypes of his gender.
Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is heartbreakingly young and her astonishing beauty embraces a deep vulnerability. The challenge of being wife to a man at least forty years older, one who wants an heir is tough, and Sophia remains fairly inscrutable even in bed with him. Enter the young artist, Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), on a portrait commission and all libidinal abandon is tossed to the wind.
While the love scenes are deeply beautiful, in certain respects, adherence to the time frame is lost and in the midst of rapture and blind passion, the young couple – Sophia and van Loos – loosen the bounds of the period and seem like a modern couple. Similarly, the finished paintings feel far too modern in style for the period in question, which was curtailed by stylistic convention, even though so much of it is drenched in the kind of liquid light you can see in paintings by Vermeer, from the same kind of period.
Having said that, the complexity of the story which sees the underbelly of the tulip prediction business infiltrating through it, involves chance and misunderstanding, a misleading pregnancy and a plan destined to fail. Fail it does, but you’re overwhelmed and surprised by how and why. It’s a rich and beautiful film that might make you think of Alexandre Dumas’s fabulous tale of a black tulip, as you learn about the nature and ethos of betting, acquiring and letting go.
- Tulip Fever is directed by Justin Chadwick and is performed by a cast featuring Keith Ackerman, Laura Allen, Sebastian Armesto, Cressida Bonas, Cornelius Booth, Amy Brogan, Greta Brogan, Jody Brogan, Daisy Chadwick, Conner Chapman, Declan Cooke, Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Judi Dench, James Dryden, Ian Drysdale, Jane Edwardes, Patsy Ferran, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Geary, Alexandra Gilbreath, B Glanville, Holliday Grainger, David Harewood, Anastasia Hille, Douglas Hodge, Tom Hollander, James Inkling, Alex Lowe, Daisy Lowe, Brendan McCoy, Kevin McKidd, Simon Meacock, Tom Meredith, Deborah Moggach, Matthew Morrison, Michael Nardone, Jack O’Connell, Megan O’Connell, Rhoda Ofori-Attah, Carl O’Rourke, Harry Rafferty, Ian Ralph, Richard Alan Reid, Joanna Scanlan, Michael Smiley, Johnny Vegas, Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, and Miltos Yerolemou. Its screenplay is written by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard, based on the eponymous novel by Deborah Moggach. Produced by Alison Owen and Harvey Weinstein, it features creative input by Danny Elfman (music), Eigil Bryld (cinematography), Rick Russell (editing), Shaheen Baig (casting), Simon Elliott (production design), Rebecca Alleway (set), Michael O’Connor (costumes). Release date: November 10 2017.