Pity the poor, long-delayed Tulip: lushly shot and stacked with Oscar winners — Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Dame Judi Dench — director Justin Chadwick’s earnest historical drama never quite transcends the feeling of watching a Dutch masterpiece done in paint-by-number.
Vikander stars as Sophia, an orphan aging out of her convent home who finds that her least bleak option in 17th-century Amsterdam is marriage to a wealthy merchant widower (Waltz, enjoying his neck ruffs and velvety britches). The officious but not unkind Cornelis Sandvoort longs for an heir; she understands that it’s her duty to endure the nightly grapplings it takes to make one. But when he commissions a conjugal portrait and the gifted but penniless Jan Van Loos (the pretty, bee-stung Dane DeHaan) shows up to paint it, Sophia’s dormant sexuality is suddenly awakened — a development whose blossoming is hard to miss, though Cornelis seems to sail past every signpost.
But love cannot live on light brushstrokes and heavy metaphor alone; as the smitten Jan sees it, his best chance of building a future with his muse is to gamble on the bull market for tulip bulbs, an improbable craze that really did sweep the city for a brief but heady time. Sophia’s contribution to their escape plan, an elaborate subterfuge involving her housemaid and sometime confidante Maria (The Borgias’ Holiday Grainger), is nearly as risky, and far less believable.
The film’s production values are predictably Weinstein Company-high, and the actors—including Dench as a canny Mother Superior with her own hand in the flower game, and Jack O’Connell as an ambitious local fishmonger—are too good not to carry its promising first half. Vikander, with her creamy, endlessly expressive Vermeer face, doesn’t even need much dialogue, and she tries hard to make Sophia breathe real air. But the script by Shakespeare in Love Oscar winner Tom Stoppard (adapted from Deborah Moggach’s best-selling 1999 novel of the same name) never picks up much inner life; compared to her fierce performances in comparable prestige pieces like The Danish Girl and The Light Between Oceans, her character development here is confined mostly to scrambling, scheming, and long yearning glances. As Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) piles on the coincidences and misdirections, the movie finally collapses under its own schematic weight, and wilts to the ground. B-