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'Tulip Fever': When Speculation Was in Bloom

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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A fascinating backdrop for an intricate if not convoluted, seriocomic love story that could have very well been written by Nöel Coward gives director Justin Chadwick's "Tulip Fever" an arthouse cachet. But while patience is a virtue, the esoteric appeal of this costumed affair set in 17th-century Holland may require more virtue than the general moviegoer wishes to expend. All the same, for those unfamiliar with the financial frenzy that speculation in tulip bulbs created during the era in question, its intrigue deserves a study even if you pass on seeing the film.
Viewed in a greater, historical perspective, not unlike the frantic rush by everyday Americans to play the market during the Roaring Twenties, the tulip fever that flowered in Amsterdam was a socioeconomic bellwether. The middle class was budding and mercantilism was making way for capitalism. While you still had to churn butter and tend to whatever beasts you owned to put food on the table, a dash of fiscal sunlight was signaling an emergence from the darkness of feudalism and an implicit promise of more egalitarian times.
Or, as your Uncle Moe put it when attempting to explain what makes the world go 'round, "money, money, money." The stuff was no longer just the lord of the manse's concern. And who knows? If you were willing to gamble your guilders, maybe someday you'd be buying that manse. That thought is not lost on Jack O'Connell's Willem, the fishmonger in love with Maria, a house servant employed by Christoph Waltz's wealthy merchant, Cornelis Sandvoort. He buys one bulb, then another, and you know how it goes from there, both good and bad.
While the movie adds no great nuance to the body of tales detailing humankind's willingness to risk everything in the pursuit of wealth and the perceived independence it might bring, the venue in which these dreams are pursued are full of great atmosphere. Combination taverns/investment houses populated with the requisite ladies of the night to give them that iniquitous touch, they are microcosms of the life and death struggle. The raucous environment, tinged with just enough threat of danger plays good counterpoint to the outwardly civil tone of the Sandvoort residence.
There, the much quieter angst and desires hide under the cover of propriety, pressed down by social pressures seething over the millennia. Of specific interest for our story's purposes are the trials and tribulations of Sophia Sandvoort, credibly played by Alicia Vikander. The survivor of a broken home and raised in a convent, she was rescued from a future of certain poverty after her much older husband, Cornelis, lost his previous wife and a potential heir to childbirth. Problem is, while the rich guy would like another shot at creating immortality, so far it's no dice.
Thus, while Cornelis is waiting for providence to bless him, he decides on what he figures is the second best way to memorialize his presence on this Earth. He will hire an artist to execute a portrait of himself and Sophia. Enters stage left, Jan Van Loos, a young painter currently short on fame but rather long on romantic idealism and potential glory. Played by Dane DeHaan, he's also kind of cute. Of course I won't insult your intelligence by detailing just how this arrangement might set in motion the central plot of deceit, deception and screwball scheming.
Suffice it to note that before long the dramatis personae are running in and out of rooms with the frenetic looniness and intellectual glibness that marked many of the aforementioned Coward's lively farces. However, even given this built-in comedy relief, Tom Stoppard and Deborah Moggach, who adapted the latter's book for the screen, never fail to impress the serious, feverish nature of this time in Dutch history. Fortunes are won and lost in the miasma that grasps the human heart whenever there appears on the horizon a shortcut to one's fantasies.
The weaving and winding can get a bit arduous if you're not among the litterateurs explicitly on hand to delight in the comparative analysis of film and book. Hence, for the moviegoer who nonetheless wants to stick it out and see how the likable enough characters might extricate themselves from the corner into which they've painted themselves, the suggestion is to look at the pretty pictures. Basking in the era of Rembrandt, there is hardly a scene that couldn't be mistaken for something done by a Dutch master.
The superb, period-evoking costumes and art direction set us to contemplating both the wonders and sameness of our evolution, from our petty concerns to our grandest ambitions and any number of combinations thereof. But most importantly, whether you rush out to the Bijou or judiciously wait until it plays the small screen, could you possibly envision living the rest of your life without knowing about "Tulip Fever?"
"Tulip Fever," rated R, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Justin Chadwick and stars Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz and Dane DeHaan. Running time: 107 minutes

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