*** Read my interview with Tulip Fever’s Oscar-winning costume designer Michael O’Connor ***
Around the turn of the 21st century we suffered the first dotcom crash, and new media employees like me went from working for start-up companies worth millions to unemployment and wondering why we had thought any of it was sustainable.
Using our unexpected leisure time to trawl back through history looking for similar situations which would make us feel both better and more stupid for not recognising what was happening, we discovered that there had been plenty of bubbles before – when the richest and poorest went slightly mad, before the bottom fell out of the market, resulting in disaster for many.
Many of us devoured a 19th century publication called Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds, engagingly written by Charles Mackay – especially the chapter on the 17th century Tulip Mania, when huge sums were paid for tulip bulbs, especially those with rare colour combinations.
I’m not a big fan of tulips. They collapse in vases really quickly and look awful as the petals drop. I’m not really a fan of Tulip Fever either, a film that seems to have been in production, post-production and post-post-production for a few centuries itself.
Caught up in producer Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, it’s been tainted ever since, only now being released in the UK.
Not only has Weinstein sullied the film but also one of the funniest characters in it – the opportunistic Dr Sorgh (Tom Hollander) who helps women conceive by actually having sex with them. I know, it sounds bad, but he’s actually incredibly engaging, and responds well to a slap across the face. Of course with the shadow of HW over this movie, it’s hard not to see Sorgh as a position-abusing sleazeball.
There aren’t that many stand-out characters in Tulip Fever. Sophia (Alicia Vikander), the heroine, comes across as insipid, though her boorish husband Cornelis (an excellent Christoph Waltz, more layered than – sorry – a tulip bulb), a much older merchant who calls his penis his “little soldier”, is actually rather moving. He’s a man who underneath his privileged exterior is diffident and easily hurt. He doesn’t seem like a bad choice of husband for a woman in those times, as long as you’re prepared to do all the work during sex.
Their housemaid Maria (Holliday Grainger) is a bouncy, cheery delight, though life has forced her to develop a core of steel. But topping them all is the Abbess (Judi Dench) heading the nunnery from where the orphan Sophia was married off.
The Abbess sees everything and is an astute businesswoman (they cultivate the very tulips which are sending the backroom auction houses of Amsterdam wild), with a religious quote or allegory for every occasion (my favourite being “God hates mopers”).
Other characters, some played by well-known actors, are either dull or only pop in momentarily – Johnny Vegas appears for about three seconds.
The plot is astonishing, and if you remember a series called Footballers’ Wives on UK TV about 15 years ago, which jumped the shark so often it should have been set in an aquarium, imagine that with added ruffs.
The actual mania for hugely overpriced tulips looks positively restrained compared to the plan cooked up by Sophia and Maria, as a baby is passed off as someone else’s through several months of pregnancy and a woman fakes her own death and is nailed into a coffin.
And the catalyst for this is a portrait of Sophia and her husband, by Jan (Dane DeHaan), a young painter, considered good but lacking obsession.
Naturally he and Sophia develop a mutual obsession for each other, and soon she’s visiting his artist’s garret to lie naked on the bed while he draws her (at this point I half-expected her to intone “paint me like one of your Dutch cheeses, Jan!”)
Vikander is, in her less lurid moments, good. DeHaan just doesn’t demonstrate the range to seem like anything but a very young man who fancies the mistress of the house.
It’s not wholly awful (look, I gave it two stars!). Sophia and her elderly husband’s monotonous and increasingly desperate sex life as they try to have a baby contrasts with what’s going on in the curtained bed in the corner of the kitchen where Maria sleeps. She and her fishmonger boyfriend Willem (Jack O’Connell) have a much earthier, more urgent sex life, desperate but for enjoyable reasons.
And costume designer Michael O’Connor has done a terrific job: the clothes illustrate how free Maria is despite her lack of money and power, compared to Sophia. Her mistress has to wear stiff heavy dresses which literally weigh her down. Sophia and Cornelis also wear the most enormous ruffs, which look like their heads are sitting on giant doilies. Meanwhile the healthily rosy-cheeked Maria, in her loose blouse and barely tied bodice, seems considerably more at ease.
It’s interesting that when Sophia is dressed for her portrait, her stunning aquamarine gown is less constricting, and instead of looking uncomfortable she positively glows. She makes the dress and the dress makes her, and Jan falls in love with her.
The hustle and bustle of Amsterdam is well done, even if in those scenes I rarely had an idea what was going on (in fact when it came to who was buying which tulip bulb for whom I was often confused). The cloistered nunnery, with its rescued orphans, is like a calm oasis of serenity within, the abbess working constantly to keep her young charges safe.
I also liked the practicalities of portrait painting, with Jan making his male friends pose in a blue dress so he can work on the portrait between sittings.
Tulip Fever has clearly been re-cut more times than a patchwork quilt. The dialogue is also sometimes very clunky, as ideas are explained to us. Tulip mania, we are told, was about beauty. Sophia too is a product bought by Cornelis and meant to reproduce every year. And though the gorgeously coloured tulips are much prized, it’s actually the bulb that is most valued as it too can produce a new flower over and over again.
If you love period dramas and clothes, this is worth a look for them alone (look out for the black cloak with a weird handle on top that makes the wearer look like a teapot though).
Otherwise, spend your money on a nice bunch of garage flowers for your loved one.
Watch the new UK trailer for Tulip Fever:
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