You know what’s a super interesting story? The tulip mania of 17th century Holland, which remains perhaps the only market bubble in history to make San Francisco real estate look like child’s play. Speculation in tulip bulbs was an out-of-control, highly dangerous thrill ride that left some impossibly rich and others destitute. At the height of the frenzy, a single bulb of certain rare “broken” tulips (point mutations caused by a virus that made normally single-color flowers “break” into stripes or flames of a contrasting color) could be sold for approximately ten times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman. That is a freaking interesting story.
Here’s another interesting story. A movie is made about a doomed love triangle, set against the sumptuous visuals and economic grandeur of Gilded Age Amsterdam. It stars Oscar-winners like Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench. It has a Danny Elfman score and it even has Tom Stoppard on co-writer detail.
Yet, in spite of this embarrassment of riches, director Justin Chadwick has managed to concoct a story so overladen and contorted it would actually probably be more satisfying to watch actual tulips growing. In the ground. In real time. (At least then the visuals would be beautiful and the story would make sense.)
Sofia (Vikander) is an unhappy housewife who’s basically been sold to a wealthy spice merchant (Waltz) by an orphanage. Sofia has been procured to replace the man’s late wife and give him some progeny, but she finds herself unable to get pregnant, disinterested in her husband, and alone but for the company of housemaid Maria (Holiday Grainger), who is in love with a dashing fishmonger named Willem (Jack O’Connell). Boring procreative sex that results in no babies cross cuts with exciting spontaneous passionate sex that results in an unplanned one. Which isn’t that big of a deal until Willem runs afoul of some tulip-trading roughnecks and ends up getting shanghaied. Meanwhile Cornelus Sandvort, the Peppercorn King, decides that his posterity shall be a portrait by up-and-coming artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan). The artist and the disenchanted housewife fall in love, and (say it with me) dangerous extramarital hijinks ensue, complete with a plot so absurdly convoluted and that-would-never-happen-ish that you have a 67% chance of developing an eyelid twitch before the credits roll. Oh, and in some way, at some level, everyone’s tragedies have something obliquely to do with tulips. Tulips and Saint Ursula’s, the convent where Dame Judi Dench is a very, very worldly-wise abbess.
Rich backdrop. Fascinating cultural moment, rife with drama and grit, the Puritanical and the hedonistic in uncomfortably close quarters. Some freaking amazing performers. So, what happened?
Well, it’s visually sumptuous, and many of the actors (Especially O’Connell, Grainger and Dench) are riveting. But this is a fantastic example of a film that is just plain trying too hard. It took something like seventeen years to get this film done and in theaters. That’s a thing. The release was delayed umpteen times while the production team raced to try and make it Play in Canoga Park. Alas, chasing audience approval at the expense of your own vision is also a thing. Also there’s a weird op-ed in which producer Harvey Weinstein refers to the movie, and the novel on which it is based, as decidedly and absolutely “noir.” (This thing’s about as noir as I am legendary French art-songstress Edith Piaf, which is to say it is a film, and I know how to sing.)
It’s not that it’s terrible—it would be easier if it were. It’s … it’s okay. Things about it are good, and it just isn’t. Part of that blames lies with the story, a terribly ponderous and silly affair that gives far too much relevance to billowing cloaks, a drunk guy (sorry, Zach Galifianakis), and the general presence of Cara Delevigne, who should have “Check it: I’m a plot point” tattooed right over her amazing eyebrows. It’s not in any way a “noir”—it’s a kooky-ass soap opera with mistaken identities and baby-switcheroonie and Terrible Terrible Misunderstandings. Somehow, they manage to make the actual Tulipomania boring, which it seriously isn’t—it’s the stuff that vivid and vibrant and amazeballs stories can be made of. Instead, we are asked to believe a story in which a grown-ass man cannot tell his wife has faked a pregnancy and her own freaking death. The ending is … um. Yeah. Sometimes good actors are made to do some really dumb things.
Judi Dench remains unassailable, however, and nothing could be dumb enough that I wouldn’t watch her in it. So there’s that.
Once upon a time, people were ready to kill and die for tulip bulbs. Someone should make a movie about that some time.
Director: Justin Chadwick
Writer: Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard (screenplay); Deborah Moggach (novel by)
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Jack O’Connell, Holliday Grainger, Zach Galifianakis, Judi Dench, Christoph Waltz
Release Date: September 17, 2017
Amy Glynn is a minimalist, but she would become less so in exchange for a decent movie about Tulip Mania.