MA, 105 minutes
Tulip Fever has endured a long, bumpy and humbling ride to the screen.
Back in 2004 when an adaptation of novelist Deborah Moggach's well-loved book was first conceived, Steven Spielberg was to produce and John Madden, his reputation still burnished by the success of Shakespeare in Love, was to direct from a Tom Stoppard script with Jude Law and Keira Knightley as leads.
Then England tightened its tax concessions and the whole confection melted away.
Nine years later, having shed $23 million of its $48 million budget, it was put back together by Harvey Weinstein. His heyday was already behind him but there was still room for hope.
British television's Justin Chadwick had been signed to direct the film. Stoppard had been retained and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander and rising American star Dane DeHaan were now the leads. The rejoicing, however, was short-lived. Disgusted by a lacklustre response to footage shown at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Weinstein shelved the film, finally releasing it this year with next to no publicity.
This chain of events hardly fosters a sense of anticipation, yet the film has a lot going for it, starting with the beguiling nature of Moggach's narrative and the timelessness of its theme.
It is set in Amsterdam in the 17th century, at the height of the city's outbreak of "tulip mania". Like the art market, this was fuelled by aesthetic taste enhanced by fashion and a language born of acquired expertise and, like financial bubbles of more recent times, it spun completely out of control until the inevitable crash.
This is the background for a story about an adulterous affair between a young Dutch painter and the equally young – and very beautiful – wife of one of the city's most prominent merchants. The merchant, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), commissions Jan van Loos (DeHaan) to do a portrait of himself and his wife, Sophie (Vikander), and the predictable happens. Painter and subject fall for one another. And out of their passion grows a convoluted scheme to free her from her husband – a scheme which involves a heady gamble on the tulip market.
Stoppard's script is an elegant and faithful condensation of the novel, preserving the playfulness Moggach gets in to in her account of the market's excesses and the chancers who are caught up in it. Chadwick's evocation of its bustle and tension is wonderfully persuasive.
There's comedy, too, in the film's take on the hapless Cornelis, whom Waltz invests with his usual edginess. With a Waltz character it always takes a while to see where the line lies between self-mockery and menace. There's a droll air to his delivery wherever the words are taking him and he's clearly relishing the chance to let this pompous burgher gradually reveal the fact that he's a lot more subtle than he seems.
There's fun, too, in watching young British actress Holliday Grainger in the role of Sophie's maid, Maria, a girl whose good nature is balanced by a highly developed instinct for survival.
There's a bonus in watching Judi Dench handle the role of the very worldly abbess of the convent where so many of Amsterdam's prize tulips are grown. She doesn't have a lot of screen time but there's no doubting the abbess's shrewd belief in the theory that commerce and godliness can make perfect partners.
The film's main flaw – and it's a big one – lies with the lovers. The whole plot hinges on their desire for one another yet in all their scenes together eroticism goes missing. DeHaan lacks the swagger he needs to make the swiftness of Sophie's seduction seem plausible. He's too young and startled-looking, while Stoppard's script leaves Sophie behind on the page.
Moggach has her as a clear-eyed realist with a gift for the caustic metaphor. She has a conscience and an inherent sense of right and wrong but there's a bone-dry humour to her, as well, and Vikander is given no opportunity to display it. The film's centre doesn't hold.