Movie Review: Tulip Fever

by Brad Nelson5/30/18
What movie review starts out with “Don’t bother watching this”? This one does. But do bother reading about it, especially if you like a mixture of Three’s Company and The Bard.

Alicia Vikander, as newlywed Sophia Sandvoort, does her best imitation of a vapid Natalie Portman (is any Natalie Portman not vapid?) as she endures an arranged marriage to Cornelis Sandvoort (played well by Christoph Waltz) whose major sin is that he is not the Leonardo-DiCaprio stand-in pretty-boy artist, Jan van Loos, as played by Dane DeHann. (There’s a great name for you.)

Three-fifths of this historical drama is actually pretty good if you’re willing to accept this often bizarre blending of Shakespeare and Three’s Company (Come and knock on our van Loos). The “Comedy of Errors” aspect is apparent when Sophia dons the cloak of her housemaid in order to try to continue her surreptitious affair with the Leonardo-Dicaprio stand-in. (Despite this being a Harvey Weinstein production — although they scraped his name off of it — they couldn’t afford the real Dicaprio but, in truth, Dane does an okay job.) The housemaid’s lover spies Sophia going into the artist’s bedroom and thus thinks his own lover is cheating on him. This bit of confusion doesn’t end well for him.

But when you see just how completely the notion of “a fool and his money are soon parted” is played out in this boyfriend of the handmaid, there will be no lasting tears for him. Hint: don’t trust him with a sackful of money.

Tulip Fever is apparently Harvey Weinstein’s last hurrah, at least according to this article. You’ll see his brother listed in the credits as an executive producer, but ol’ Harvey has been scrubbed from the credits as thoroughly as a Buddhist statue at the hands of the Taliban.

Cornelis Sandvoort is a bit older than Sophia. His first wife died, as did his various three children by her. He has no heirs. What’s a fellow to do? Luckily he makes a deal with a local orphanage to wed Sophia if all of her sisters and brothers are then given paid transport to America. There’s no love in the marriage but Cornelis isn’t a bad guy. But if there can be bad men in cinema who portray the ghastliest traits of men, there can be women who do the same. Sophia must have her Leonardo-Dicaprio stand-in pretty-boy artist, Jan van Loos, no matter the consequences to everyone around her. She’s in full narcissist mode.

The plot takes a Shakespearean turn when Sophia’s handmaid turns up pregnant (by the boyfriend who has since been forcibly enlisted in the Dutch navy). Sophia, despite her best efforts of lying back and thinking of Denmark, cannot conceive a child by her husband, Cornelis. And it is very bad news for a single woman — the handmaid — in Denmark of that age to be pregnant. The age has not yet glorified the single handmaiden.

So (whether this is technically Three’s Company or Shakespeare), Sophia schemes with the maid to pull a switcheroo. The maid will hide her pregnancy (they had loose-fitting dresses back then) and Sophia will stuff herself up with pillows to pretend to be pregnant. They enlist the aid of a dodgy doctor who is in on the scheme. (No, it’s not Jack Tripper.) He will help Sophia with the excuse that in order for the baby to remain safe, Sophia must not be touched by him until she has the baby. The plan sounds absolutely foolproof, providing you have enough fools.

Come and knock on our door! And this plot and these characters are all amusing enough. Thrown in with this is the tulip fever aspect. It adds a little historical interest to this picture. And those who know me may wonder if I myself have a fever when I say that one of the best characters in this is Judi “M” Dench as the Abbess of some clutch of nuns. I really liked this hard-bitten nun. I would love to see her in a series based on this character. Sort of a female bad-tempered Cadfael, I suppose.

A slight spoiler here, but I suppose that people will actually take my advice and not watch this. But the best moment in the movie was when the Leonardo-DiCaprio pretty-boy stand-in is breaking into the abbey in order to steal some valuable tulip bulbs. The Abbess’ geese are on guard and make quite a racket. The next moment Judi “M” Dench is bludgeoning him just as he’s climbed over the gate. And that’s not really the sweet part. Not only did she hit him hard enough to knock him unconscious to the ground but she gave him another tap just for good measure.

Who says violence solves nothing? But after this thorough reordering of right-and-wrong as applied to the DiCaprio stand-in’s head, the Abbess takes him under her talons, so to speak, and tutors him in the tulip trade.

So where does all this go wrong? As a historical drama, there are enough lavish costumes (they all wear oil filters around their necks) and historical details to make it watchable. But I think it’s finally sunk by about two or three McGuffinesque plot points that are so atrociously contrived that it mangles whatever narrative they have. There’s no villainous Mr. Rope to be tricked to bring this all together at the end, although they do try to contrive a happy ending for everyone.

In the end, Harvey Weinstein was right. This film is not perfect. And yet there are vast traces of watchability to it. And if you can mock it with a friend here and there as you watch it, all the better.

Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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11 Responses to Movie Review: Tulip Fever

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I wonder if someone here knew his classical history. There was a once-famous incident in Roman history when the Gauls took Rome (396 BC, as I recall). The citadel on top of one of the hills still held out, but naturally the Gauls had no intention of leaving that untaken. They couldn’t take it in a straight fight, so they tried to sneak up on it at night. Might have worked if the sacred geese hadn’t started squawking, waking up the Romans in time for them to discover and defeat the Gauls.

    ADDENDUM: I just checked in wikipedia, and it was 387 BC, and the hill was the Capitoline. The Gauls (a Cisalpine tribe called the Senones) were led by Brennos, and the Roman fortress commander was Marcus Manlius Capitolinus.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I worked with a man who had lived in a small beach house on Penang Island and had kept geese as “watch-dogs.” There was the added advantage that they ate snakes.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think I’ve seen other movies where geese have been used as watchdogs. They may be very effective. They eat slugs as well. The only problem is that they can be so aggressive, they’re not good around children…or around Leonardo DiCapria stand-ins trying to rob the nuns of their tulip bulbs.

      I really can’t stand Judi Dench which is why you should trust me when I say I’d love to see more of this Abbess. It could make a good series.

      A very good book to read tangential to this movie is Tulipmania. Had the movie interwoven this phenomenon in a little better and more clearly — with details of the history, the ramifications, etc. — it would have worked better. There is one good scene reflective of accounts that I read in the book. The maid’s boyfriend is a fishmonger. And the reality of fishmongering is that everyone knows your job just by the smell.

      So this fishmonger is on the tulip bulb trading room floor and some guys says to him, “Aren’t you the fishmonger?” And he says, “I used to be.” And the other guy says something like, “Yes, I know what you mean. I used to be a baker but I sold everything to buy tulips.”

      So far as I’ve read, this is completely accurate. Many people hawked their livelihoods to buy tulips. And when the bubble burst, they had nothing.

      We catch at least a minor glimpse of the competitive instinct that drove normally rational people to gamble on the bulbs. They saw their neighbors making money hand-over-fist and tulip prices doubling every few weeks. It seemed like a can’t-miss investment. And it was until the bubble burst.

      Sophia Sandvoort is one of those Shakespearean characters who you know is going to get it in the end. Unfortunately, this movie is so touchy-feely kind to her at the end that this is surely a reason it didn’t do well. However, her husband, Cornelis Sandvoort, is a noble character. In the end he accepts his part in the failed marriage because he understand he basically purchased his wife in an orphanage. He sails off to the West Indies to start a new life and apparently he started to do well again. The end.

      He’s so darn nice that he gives his house to the maid with the promise to bring up his son (he still thinks it is his son, not the maid’s) and do what she can to keep up his good name in the town. She agrees. The fishmonger, having served out his enforced term in the Dutch navy, returns home, and they both set up shop in Sandvoort’s old house. They live happily ever after.

      As for what actually happens to the Leonardo DiCapria stand-in and the equivalent of the vapid Natalie Portman (Alicia Vikader as Sophia Sandvoort), you’re just going to have to watch this movie to find out. I shan’t give it all away.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        The only problem is that they can be so aggressive

        Yes, that’s what I heard.

        My friend was a single guy when he lived in the place and apparently, some of his friends had a hard time getting to the house. He had to call of the geese.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I was wondering after reading the review why there seemed to be no mention of the tulip mania. It would be such a good thing to bring up. There has to be some good story material — and still relevant today — in any past bubble. That was simply the first we know of.

        As for guard geese, perhaps Orwell was right in having the geese harass Jones’s men in the first attack on Animal Farm.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          When doing one of these reviews, I’m always hopeful someone else who has watched it will contribute points that I didn’t take time to do. But the movie really wasn’t so much about “tulip fever” as it was about “young wife having a fever for the young artist.” The tulip aspect was interesting but more of an excuse to try to tie the characters together. I found the tulips to be more peripheral to the story than integral even though money made (or lost) off the tulips did move the plot here and there.

  3. Rosalys says:

    Well, well, Brad. I decided a long time ago, after watching the trailer for this movie, that it must be a horribly, trashy, nearly x-rated “romance,” and that I wouldn’t watch it, (in spite of the fact that I am a sucker for historical costume flicks. I had no idea it’s a comedy!

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Your instincts are good, Rosalys. It was a trashy romance between the Natalie Portman substitute and the Leonardo DiCapria substitute. This was not Jack Dawson and Rose from “Titanic.” It was gratuitous soft-core porn.

      Still, you’ve heard of the phenomenon of the Lookie-loo, those who slow down to dangerous sub-speeds on the freeway to gawk at the misfortunes of others. Well, I really didn’t think the movie was that bad. It’s production values (costumes, sets, etc.) were pretty good. But there were elements of “so bad it’s good” to it in regards to the often Three’s-Company plot points.

      And Mr. Sandvoort was an interesting, even sympathetic, character — along with the rather interesting character of the Abbess as played by Judi Dench. The makings of a sort of poor man’s Romeo & Juliet with tulip bulbs was there. But it van der veered too close to a “Three’s Company” script, especially nearer the end.

      I would have supposed that Harvey Weinstein thought that Alicia Vikander (the substitute Natalie Portman) was giving a substitute Black-Swan-like performance meant to cause rivers of estrogen sympathy to flow…perhaps all the way to another undeserved Oscar win in the category of “Best Victim.”

      But, alas, with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, even the merits of this movie didn’t stand a chance.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Your “van der veered” somehow makes me think of the important 1974 special election between Republican Robert Van Der Laan and Democrat Richard Van Der Veen in Grand Rapids. Voters in this Republican district considered Van Der Laan the better choice, but gave Van Der Veen a solid majority anyway. His fortunes really took off when he called for impeaching and removing Nixon, which would make the district’s former Congressman, Gerald Ford, President. He ended up losing in 1976, when Ford was at the top of the GOP ticket, though not to Van Der Laan.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          1974 special election between Republican Robert Van Der Laan and Democrat Richard Van Der Veen in Grand Rapids

          That sounds more like a Monty Python sketch. I wonder how many voters got the two confused. That’s like the old James Fitzpatrick and Patrick Fitzjames joke. But I shan’t repeat it here for fear of being fired.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Grand Rapids, as might be guessed from the candidates’ names, was heavily Dutch-American. Most of them had no trouble figuring out who was who. Ironically, when Van Der Veen lost in 1976, the winner was one Harold Sawyer.

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