When you employ an award-winning writer and award-winning cast to helm your film, is it so wrong to expect big things?
On paper, Tulip Fever, from director Justin Chadwick (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), has it all. Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander plays Sophia Sandvoort, wife of Christoph Waltz’s Cornelis, who falls in love with the artist (Dane DeHaan) hired to paint her portrait in 17th-century Holland. The romance unfolds amid Amsterdam’s “tulip mania” of the time, in which merchants and citizens alike made vast fortunes by investing in the flower market. A starry and successful cast of A-listers is rounded off by Dame Judi Dench, model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne and BAFTA rising-star Jack O’Connell, whilst Shakespeare in Love’s Sir Tom Stoppard is behind the script. Frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman has scored the music and it’s even being distributed by hit-factory The Weinstein Company.
All this aside, Tulip Fever’s journey to the big screen has an unqualified disaster.
Based on the book by Deborah Moggach, Tulip Fever has been in the pot for adaptation since 2004, when Steven Spielberg was to produce a Jude Law and Keira Knightley-led version. A change in UK tax rules brought production to a halt, however, just days before filming was due to begin.
It would take almost a decade for work to recommence on the project, under an entirely new crew and cast. This time, filming went ahead as planned and the first footage was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. It’s at this point that things seem to have got a bit messy.
An initial Summer 2016 release was pushed back to February of this year, before being pulled last minute from the schedule, again, to settle for an international distribution on 24 August. Despite coming from a British production company and having been filmed locally, this international distribution did not, as it goes, include the UK itself.
“It’s beyond maddening,” Moggach told The Film Blog last month.
“We cannot get answers from anyone, we just can’t find out and it’s very frustrating.”
Vintage, the novel’s UK publishers, are said to be frustrated by the confusion due to their wish to release a tie-in book cover for the film.
“American studios don’t think about little English publishers though,” said Moggach.
Of those who have seen the film, critics have been harsh to Tulip Fever. Chadwick’s film is, they say, “a harvest of stupidity” and a film that “wilts before your very eyes.” Somewhat kinder reviews have found the film to be elegantly framed, yet painted flatly, whilst even Harvey Weinstein — the man in charge of the film’s flimsy distribution — offered a backhanded compliment in his precursive defence statement that, “I know this film’s not perfect, very few are, but it’s a perfectly good time in a movie theater.” If ever a “promotion” damned with faint praise…
It’s hard to exactly pin down what’s gone so horribly wrong for Tulip Fever but the dismal response the film has had from critics and audiences in equal measure does suggest a crisis of confidence behind the scenes and a lack of certainty in the best way to market a potential flop. When it comes to the poor quality of the film itself, a lethargic and lengthy road to production is often to the detriment of a final product. In the case of Tulip Fever, Stoppard’s script was a revision of earlier attempts rather than a fresh take. Books, too, are infamously difficult to translate when approached faithfully, by virtue of the differing modes of storytelling between page and screen.
As for a UK release, don’t be surprised if it never comes. The question remains as to whether that will be in cinemas or in the comfort of your own home. In a society of streamers, it is certainly more attractive to sell your film to an online platform than pump money into an extensive and futile promotion.
When the film does come, don’t be put off by critics. Moggach is a self-proclaimed fan of the film and the determination of a story’s success is a hugely individual matter. That said, if you do not judge a book by its cover, perhaps you’d be wise not judge a film by its award-winning cast.