by Brad Nelson 5/30/18
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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