Novelist William Dean Howells once quipped that “what the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Not for us is the full experience of catharsis, that purgation of emotion through the witness of a tragic hero undergoing complete destruction, step by step. No, we must have some redemption at the end. We apparently also want period piece-costume dramas with plenty of nudity, because nothing speaks to our sense of cultural refinement like historically accurate ruffs and corsets falling away to reveal anachronistically unblemished flesh.
So, although it’s set in 17th century Amsterdam, “Tulip Fever” proves itself a quintessentially American film. Former orphan Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is wife to businessman Cornelius Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), an older man whose sole purpose in wedding her is to breed an heir. Every night, he empties his bladder in the nearby chamberpot and then crawls next to Sophia, telling her that his “little soldier” is ready for her attentions. One day, like all Dutch men of wealth, he hires an artist to paint their portrait. Predictably enough, Sophia is soon stricken with lust for the young and virile painter Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), and they begin seeing each other (a lot of each other) every chance they can. In the meantime, Sophia’s maid Maria (Holliday Grainger) finds herself pregnant. As it turns out, her intended husband vanished after he made a small fortune in the tulip craze then gripping Amsterdam, which also ensnares young Jan, who starts betting on the tulip market with the aim of earning enough that he and Sophia can escape together for a life in the East Indies.
Everyone is gripped by a fever. As Sophia’s affair begins to unravel not only her own life but also those near and dear to her, the complex machinations she undertakes in a desperate bid to pursue this life of passion (and save her trusted maid from disgrace) hint at something darkly Shakespearean. Unfortunately, however, “Tulip Fever” lacks the confidence to commit to its tragic potential. At the very moment its characters stand in the blinding light of ruin and revelation, with death the only escape, the movie rather prudishly pulls back from the brink in the worst possible way — namely, a title card that reads “Eight Years Later.” It’s redemption by epilogue.
A failed tragedy may, of course, still be a decent movie — but not this one. The plot just lurches forward on demand, without the characters ever being established enough to give meaning to their actions. Sophia and Jan fly into each other’s arms without explanation or preamble, as if struck by the goddess Aphrodite or by a screenwriting maxim which holds that the young wife of an older and richer man must be in want of a sufficiently penniless artist. The ridiculous demands of the story leave everybody speaking in cliches, thus wasting a wonderfully fine cast. Even Judi Dench, playing the abbess of a nearby convent, struggles to endow her occasional appearance with any real vitality.
All that said, “Tulip Fever” shows evidence of a better movie, perhaps one hiding on the cutting room floor or in the original source material (a novel by Deborah Moggach). There is no cinematic tension, no question of “will they or won’t they” in the improbable affair between Sophia and Jan. Once that is well underway, though, and everyone begins betting big on the future, “Tulip Fever” proves itself genuinely engaging — even hinting at some depth in the character of Cornelius, for one — as people are forced to reconcile their deeds with their souls, their dreams with the lives being destroyed. However, like the tulip craze that serves as the thematic crutch for this story, the movie quickly falls apart. Perhaps with “Tulip Fever,” the costume drama bubble has officially burst.