A young woman stands on a beach, her back facing the camera. The sky is grey and the sea appears turbulent. She is completely alone, and dwarfed by the harsh landscape. This is the first shot we see of our protagonist Sophia (Alicia Vikander) and it is a perfect representation of what Tulip Fever does best: masterful shot composition that results in impressive scenes that are lavish and barren in equal measure. It’s a testament to the film’s visual craftsmanship that, within five seconds of this opening shot, I already felt sympathy for Sophia. Unfortunately, in retrospect this scene equally serves as a reminder of everything Tulip Fever does wrong, as I rarely felt this level of sympathy again for any of the characters throughout the rest of the film.
Following the opening shot, we are quickly introduced to Sophia’s source of anxiety; she is leaving the orphanage she grew up in to be married to Cornelis (Christoph Waltz), a wealthy older merchant who has essentially bought her from the orphanage in the hopes that she may be able to provide him with a child. However, soon she meets Jan (Dane DeHaan), a dashing young artist and they both fall madly with each other. The year is 1634 and we’re in
Admittedly, the moment Jan was introduced I felt a wave of fatigue wash over me because as far as I was concerned, I’d seen this all before. Historical romantic dramas seem to love the set up of a beautiful woman constrained by her undeserving husband/husband to be until one day she meets a dashing and romantic man and they both fall madly in love (Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, A Room with a View, to name a few). Of course, when Jan was introduced I saw the plot going the same way - but to the film’s credit, not only does it avoid the use of such narrative tropes, it actively subverts them. The fact that Cornelis is presented as a kind, albeit awkward, man, instead of the typical tyrannical spouse, adds far more moral complexity than you would usually expect from this kind of story. Furthermore, the way in which the tulip fever that grips
Unfortunately, despite all this, the film failed to truly grab me. I could offer a few reasons as to exactly why I left the cinema feeling fairly cold towards it, such as its irritating tendency to rely on miscommunication as a source of drama to drive the plot (especially egregious from a film that was otherwise pointedly avoiding the clichés of its genre). However, the far more serious issue is that Tulip Fever felt emotionally barren. Whilst I occasionally connected with Cornelis, I remained continually un-invested in basically every other character. The characters were mostly underdeveloped, which may have been forgivable had they had compelling chemistry, but the two romantic leads did little to endear me to their relationship.
I wish I could get more invested in Tulip Fever. The cinematography is impressive and I enjoyed its subtle critique of the romance genre. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, it’s a regrettably soulless experience.