Tulip Fever, a romantic drama set during Amsterdam's Tulip Mania of the 1630s, and finally being released Sept. 1, has already become the stuff of Hollywood lore. It was first optioned as a movie in 2000 before its author Deborah Moggach had even seen it rise to a bestseller. Then some financing woes in 2004 left the project withering for a decade until 2014. First John Madden was set to direct, then Steven Spielberg wanted it, then Harry Styles was offered the lead, then it was screened at Cannes in 2015, then its release was pushed four times. All that to say, Tulip Fever is a film a-swirl in what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. The years-long anticipation of its arrival has only heightened the stakes for what is – and what maybe always would have been – a harmless historical romp through some flowers.
This homage to Dutch painting and the hot tulip market was ultimately directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), with rising megastar and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Danish Girl), Christoph Waltz (a Quentin Tarantino favourite), and relative newcomer Dane DeHaan (Two Lovers and a Bear) as beauty, passion, and cuckold, respectively.
Vikander's Sophia is an orphan turned lady of the house who is grateful to her much older husband, Waltz as Cornelis Sandvoort, for saving her from a life of poverty. This gratitude is borne out each night as she dutifully tries to conceive his baby – seemingly her raison d'être in the house – when along comes a sexy young painter (enter DeHaan as struggling artist Jan) ready to immortalize the couple's likeness in oil on wood before he inevitably falls in love with Sophia.
Vikander is as mesmerizing as Scarlett Johansson was in that other Dutch-painter-falls-for-his-muse blockbuster, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Both women possess a classical beauty so perfect that the thought of anyone becoming completely obsessed with their image feels about right and totally true. Still, the chemistry isn't quite there between Vikander and DeHaan – which may very well be the result of an over-edited movie trying too hard for magic and leaving most of it on the cutting-room floor. DeHaan was superb in Kim Nguyen's Two Lovers and a Bear opposite Tatiana Maslany, so he's got the chops as a leading man, but in Tulip Fever the pacing is too jumpy and the plot too overwrought for his cool charm to do its meandering thing.
The supporting cast is at times uneven, too, with Zach Galifianakis, whose antics are normally charming (if harebrained), missing the mark of 17th-century sidekick. But then there is the incomparable Judi Dench as an Abbess and shrewd overseer of the tulip patch, who should have gotten more screen time. A rule to live by when grasping at straws to save a possibly doomed movie – take note Harvey Weinstein – is to always throw in more Dench, always.
Tulip Fever has a number of things going for it, such as a rich palette of colours and grand costumes, a stunning leading lady, and enough satisfying hijinks to entertain for a while. It is your run-of-the mill period drama that plays it safe – certainly not daring enough to offend or to truly captivate. It lacks the heat of the rollicking tulip trade it tries to depict and the fire of the illicit love around which the film centres. It's fine. But it's also a little lost in its own reflection, searching futilely for the magic it cut years ago.