Tulip Fever; 107min; Rated R
The year is 1634. The place is Amsterdam, a thriving port city defined by international shipping, art patronage and likely the first western commodities bubble: a frenetic speculation in tulip bulbs, most especially a bulb referred to as “the breaker.”
In the back rooms of taverns, buyers and sellers carried on the purchase and sale of bulbs with all the enthusiasm of traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Most coveted was the aforementioned white tulip — the breaker — that had a glorious streak of crimson on one petal. It sold for stunning prices.
But this is not simply a story about the fortunes made and lost in tulip speculation (to include occasional suicides in one of the many canals). Indeed, while the operative word is “fever,” it also applies to an adulterous triangle between a young woman, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), who was all but purchased from a local orphanage by a wealthy merchant, Cornelis (Christop Waltz), a sixty-something man. Having lost his first wife and child in childbirth, he is now looking for a vessel to carry an heir. Sophia, lovely, grateful to suddenly find herself surrounded by affluence, does what she can to encourage Cornelis’ penis, which he calls his little soldier, to stand at attention in hopes of impregnating her.
However, after three years, no seed is successfully planted, and Cornelis, decent is every other way, considers returning Sophia to the orphanage if no child is forthcoming.
In the interim, he decides to immortalize himself and Sophia in a painting and hires a young artist, Jan van Loos (Dane DeHann), to create a formally posed portrait. And so enters into the home a young, vital, attractive painter who cannot take his eyes off of Sophia, whose luminous visage is reflected in the light of the morning sun as she stands near a window holding a breaker tulip.
Hence, while tulip fever grips Amsterdam, a different fever grips Sophia and Jan, and it is all but immediately clear that their carnal attraction will likely end badly, leaving shards of emotional wreckage scattered in their wake.
How the last half of act two and act three crystalize involves a convoluted plan that requires a certain suspension of disbelief.
Perhaps it’s a cliché that the husband is the last to know — the husband in this case being Cornelis — but there it is. And when he learns of the nine-month charade that has been swirling around him, he is flummoxed. Involved in this drama is the Abbess of an orphanage (Judi Dench); an ethically challenged, lecherous doctor; a type of surrogate pregnancy involving Sophia’s housemaid, Maria (Halliday Granger); and an obscure but interesting ending.
Did I like the story? I did. It is lushly told, beautifully costumed, with a consummately gifted cast, beginning with three Oscar winners: Dench, Vikander and Waltz. I’m sure that some might find aspects of the film to be missing something — passion, perhaps, or a certain connective tissue. But I vote for suggesting that the 107 minutes spent with “Tulip Fever” are not wasted, and the story throughout engages.