'Tulip Fever': A Lush Portrait Of A Florid Affair

Sep 1, 2017
Originally published on September 1, 2017 4:39 pm

There's a film hitting theaters this weekend you may not have heard anything about. It's called Tulip Fever, a period romantic thriller starring Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Judi Dench and Dane DeHaan, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.

The reason you haven't heard much in the way of advance buzz has everything to do with its rocky road to the cineplex: Tulip Fever was originally scheduled for release two years ago, and it has been delayed several times since then. Now that it's finally hitting theaters, the studio placed an embargo on reviews until 1 p.m. today — effectively preventing any reviews of the film from appearing in the Friday morning newspapers.

Bob Mondello has one of the first takes on this film that's had such a long, strange trip to movie screens.


Amsterdam, 1634: a town gripped by tulip mania.

That's going to require a bit of explanation, isn't it?

The tulip had only recently been introduced to Europe, and quickly became a status symbol in the Netherlands. In what's widely considered the first instance of the "speculator bubble" phenomenon, the prices for tulip bulbs soared — and eventually, inevitably, crashed.

Director Justin Chadwick's film Tulip Fever, like the best-selling 1999 novel by Deborah Moggach on which it's based, is set during this period of collective obsession — and wild speculation.

Wealthy merchant Cornelius (Christoph Waltz), married to the beautiful and much younger Sophia (Alicia Vikander), hires promising young painter Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan) to take their portrait. Upon first catching sight of Sophia, Jan is transfixed, unable to stop looking at her.

It doesn't take too many posing sessions for them to do more than just look at each other.

The two begin a torrid affair; Chadwick keeps them dashing through Amsterdam's teeming streets and markets to avoid detection, lingering awhile in those where traders calculate dividends while bidding on tulip futures.

The screenplay blends virtue and vanity, God and guilders, bulbs and blackmail. And if it's got too much of some of those elements to fit comfortably into one movie, it has still been cleverly penned — I'm picturing with actual quills — by Moggach and playwright Tom Stoppard.

Stoppard, remember, wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, which brought wit and romance to this same period. Tulip Fever is not in that film's league, but it's lush and boisterous and crammed with the sort of arts gossip and commerce trivia that go nicely with gilded frames and talk of tulip futures.

Where else would you learn, for instance, that Renaissance painters dressed the Virgin Mary in blue not because it was the color of purity, but because it was the color that cost the most. "Ultramarino," explains our lovesick painter, means "blue from across the sea."

Count that little tidbit as a dividend paid by a movie that lets its characters get perhaps too feverish over tulips, but that has the great good sense to dress its leading lady in ultramarine when she's sitting for that portrait.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The movie "Tulip Fever" opens today in more than 700 theaters across the country more or less undercover. If you haven't seen any reviews of the movie yet, it's because the Weinstein Company placed an embargo on them until this afternoon. Ours is out now. Here's NPR critic Bob Mondello's take on the costume drama "Tulip Fever."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Amsterdam 1634 - a town gripped by tulip mania. But the film's first order of business isn't bulbs. It's babies. A wealthy merchant's much younger wife is visiting a doctor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

ALICIA VIKANDER: (As Sophia) Cornelis is so old, but he's very willing. Still, he saved me from a life of poverty, and I must repay him. He wants a son, and I've not been blessed. Mrs. Overvalt said you can help me.

TOM HOLLANDER: (As Dr. Sorgh) Of course. This way.

MONDELLO: He leads her to the next room, marveling at his own good fortune - a wealthy client, attractive.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

VIKANDER: (As Sophia) Thank you.

HOLLANDER: (As Dr. Sorgh) There's the bed - on your back or your front - up to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

MONDELLO: She realizes what he intends.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

HOLLANDER: (As Dr. Sorgh) A thousand apologies.

VIKANDER: (As Sophia) How dare you?

MONDELLO: Her husband, meanwhile, though not entirely giving up on having children is looking for other ways to live on after he's gone. A portrait might do the trick, he thinks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

CHRISTOPH WALTZ: (As Cornelis) And when everything else about me has been forgotten, they'll say, look there at that lucky, old dog. Didn't he have a lovely, young wife?

MONDELLO: To keep the price down, he hires a promising, young painter. But handsome, young painter, lovely, young wife - different problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

VIKANDER: (As Sophia) What are you looking at?

DANE DEHAAN: (As Jan Van Loos) What am I looking at?

MONDELLO: It doesn't take many posing sessions before the painter is doing more than just looking.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

DEHAAN: (As Jan Van Loos) God help me. I'm in love.

MONDELLO: And a few sittings later, when a pedal drops from a tulip in a vase and the merchant murmurs...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

WALTZ: (As Cornelis) First to flower, first to fall.

MONDELLO: ...His wife and the painter exchange alarmed glances. Could they have been found out? Director Justin Chadwick keeps them dashing through Amsterdam's teeming streets and markets to avoid detection, lingering a while in the ones where traders calculate dividends while bidding up speculative tulip futures. Plain tulips are a florin a dozen. But let there be a crimson streak in a white bloom, and as a bulb-savvy nun played by Judi Dench can tell you, there's money to be made.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TULIP FEVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why are you weighing them?

JUDI DENCH: (As Abbess) The more they weigh, the more they're worth - also the more babies. Look. These little nodes - each one will become a bulb. Here is a node from our best bulb. It sold for 920 florins at auction. Unfortunately we had already sold it privately for 18 - hidden amongst ordinary, simple-colored flowers. But it's found its way home by the generosity of the next purchaser, who had sentimental memories of me from many years ago. Never underestimate God. He forgets nothing.

MONDELLO: Based on the best-seller "Tulip Fever" by Deborah Moggach, the screenplay blends virtue and vanity, God and gilders, bulbs and blackmail. And if it has too much of some of those to fit comfortably in one movie, it has still been cleverly penned - I'm picturing with actual quills - by Moggach and by playwright Tom Stoppard. His "Shakespeare In Love," remember, brought wit and romance to this same period a while back. "Tulip Fever" is not in that league, but it's lush and boisterous and crammed with the sort of arts, gossip and commerce trivia that go nicely with gilded frames and talk of tulip futures. Where else would you learn, for instance, that Renaissance painters dressed the Virgin Mary in blue not because it was the color of purity but because it was the color that cost the most.

Ultramarino, explains our lovesick painter, means blue from across the sea. Count that little tidbit as a dividend paid by a movie that lets its characters get perhaps too feverish over blooms but that has the good sense to dress its leading lady in ultramarine when she is sitting for that portrait. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.