Set in 17th century Amsterdam, filmed in the UK, and starring a brilliant cast: Tulip Fever turned out to be an exciting time travel trip with a surprising twist at the end…
Amsterdam, the Netherlands, during the 1630s: An orphaned girl called Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is forcibly married to the wealthy merchant Cornelius Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). But what started as an unhappy “arrangement” to save Sophia from poverty, slowly flourishes into a loving relationship. Just like those new exotic flowers called tulips.
However, after several years of marriage, Sophia has still not become pregnant. Thus, she has failed to provide her husband with the heir that he so desperately wants. And then, when Cornelius commissions a double portrait of the two, Sophia starts a passionate affair with the painter Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan, a very Dutch surname by the way. It would surprise me if he didn’t have Dutch ancestry). Jan is a struggling young artist who tries to get rich by buying “tulip shares”.
The story is told from the perspective of Sophia’s maid-servant Maria (Holliday Grainger). Maria becomes pregnant by a fishmonger called Willem (Jack O’Connell), who then mysteriously disappears. The unwanted pregnancy of Maria makes Sophia come up with the perfect plan to run away with her lover the painter. However, she soon develops huge doubts about betraying her caring husband… Now, Sophia stands at crossroads: which life will she choose?
The supporting cast includes Judi Dench as the Abbess of St. Ursula, Zach Galifianakis as Gerrit, a henchman of Jan Van Loos and Tom Hollander as an oddly funny early gynaecologist. Cara Delevingne is briefly seen as Annetje – a promiscuous girl who engages in petty crime and usually hangs out at the heated “tulip stock exchange” in the backroom of a busy tavern.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the Netherlands without tulips. It seems like tulips have always been a “home grown” flower in the Netherlands. But that’s not the case. In fact, they were only introduced on Dutch soil from Constantinople in the early 17th century. That’s why in the film, which is set in 1637, there is an actual “tulip mania”. Everyone wanted a piece of these new, exotic and extremely rare flowers. Hoping to become rich, many bought “tulip shares” en masse. This eventually ended in overspeculation and one of the first stock market crashes in history.
What’s also hinted at in the film is that Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest and most liberal cities to live in at the time. The United Provinces, as the Netherlands were known then, were one of the greatest trading and shipping powers around the globe. As such, this period was also known as “the Dutch Golden Age”.
Read more about visiting Amsterdam today in my post 24 Hours in Amsterdam – Five Tips to Make the Most of Limited Time
But although Tulip Fever is set in Amsterdam, the film was shot exclusively in England.
Production Designer Simon Elliott explains why: “What is left from 17th century Amsterdam is few and far between. There are little pockets of it, but Amsterdam today is built of many layers of history. To strip all that back and try to reinstate the period in which the story is set wasn’t going to work for us.”
Thus, the huge red brick Tudor mansion Cobham Hall in Kent (which today serves as an independent boarding school for girls) was used to recreate a typical street from 17th century Amsterdam – complete with Amsterdam’s famous canals. Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk, which is known as featuring the biggest cloister in the UK, served as St. Ursula’s Convent. Here, “abbess” Judi Dench breeds tulips in the film. The exterior of Jan’s studio was filmed at Charterhouse Square in the City of London and the interiors of the stock exchange tavern were shot at Kentwell Hall, Suffolk.
All other interior scenes, like those in the Sandvoort House or Jan’s studio, were shot at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.
Tulip Fever certainly made me want to revisit some of the real-life settings of the so-called “Dutch Golden Age” in the Netherlands as well as those great historical filming locations in the UK.
Christoph Waltz is always a safe bet. However, in this one, he isn’t as much of a ruthless villain as we are used to seeing him as from films such as Inglorious Basterds or Big Eyes. His character Cornelius, who had already lost his first wife in childbirth and all of his previous children, is actually quite likeable. He treats his young wife Sophia with respect and truly loves her, even though she hasn’t yet born him a child.
Alicia Vikander, probably Sweden’s most successful female acting export in recent years, is a safe bet, too.
With the long hair, Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) looks almost unrecognisable at first, but he is brilliant as always in playing the cheeky fishmonger who is in love with Sophia’s maid Maria (Holliday Grainger).
The Final Verdict:
Tulip Fever is about so much more than just the fling of a lonely wife and her young lover. Overall, it’s a beautifully acted period drama that brings 17th century Amsterdam and one of the first stock market crashes in history to blooming life again. Plus, Tulip Fever features a very surprising, but wonderfully satisfying ending.
***** 5 out of 5 stars