“Desire, obsession and betrayal.” Be still my beating heart. Yes, “Tulip Fever” promises all of those, and certainly delivers in each, plus a tutorial on the history of the tulip.

If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember those words were key back in the years of Douglas Sirk and Ross Hunter, when Hollywood was in bloom and full Technicolor, when Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Wyman were tearing up the sheets and pulling tears from your eyes.

Director Justin Chadwick’s film from the novel by Deborah Moggach is much better in those categories than all that, but still gives you a boiling stew of titillating substance and erotic shadows.

For your money you’ll get gorgeous gowns and manly men, illicit romance, cuckolding connivance and an array of bizarre sexually repressed (and not so repressed) characters, more suited to a Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson bodice ripper.

There is heartbreak aplenty and unexpected plunges into slapstick comedy, with a touch of French farce provided by the dressing up of the very modern comedian Zach Galifianakis in the buffoonish costume of a 17th-century drunken vaudevillian.

In my opinion, the critics missed the point. “Tulip” is more tongue-in-cheek sexual comedy than a Douglas Sirk melodrama; keep this in mind as you clutch your hankies and scratch your head. It’s a comedy.


Putting that aside, you’re offered a lovely Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl,” “Ex Machina”) who comes to us as Sophia, a misplaced child who grew up in a nun-run Catholic orphanage (where a delightful mother superior, Judi Dench, runs a tulip farm for profit) and then was put on the sale block to be purchased by wealthy Dutch merchant Cornelis Sandvoort (two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz in, for the first time, a sympathetic role).

Cornelis, slowly slipping into a late-stage middle-age crisis, wants to feather his nest with issue (what your grandmother called “babies”) to leave his fortune.

Together Sophia and Cornelis make several semi-comedic attempts at conceiving. Alas, no issue.

Now our Sophia, despite her upbringing, or maybe because of it, seems to be harboring some sinful desires not properly fueled by her older lover.

These lustful urges are fueled by the lusty noises from downstairs made by the housekeeper Maria (Holliday Grainger) and her fishmonger lover Willem (Jack O’Connell) whose table banging can be heard wafting up through the floorboards.

Wouldn’t you know that director Chadwick heats up the action by having Cornelis hire a local painter Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan) to whip up a portrait of himself and his barren bride.


And wouldn’t you know that the young painter in his early 20s is a gorgeous hunk with soulful eyes and fingers more adept at bodice unlacing than twirling a sable brush. Jan and Sophia waste no time in falling in love. Hide your eyes; there will be nudity and heavy breathing.

This is where the comedy roars in. Maria the maid gets pregnant by her lover, who for some reason, ships out to sea, and she and Sophia concoct a plot that will benefit them both.

This will result in quick changes, pillow-stuffed gowns, slammed doors and near misses. The funniest moments are provided by Tom Hollander as Dr. Sorgh, a lecherous OB-GYN. Hilarious.

In case the sex gets too sweltering for you, Chadwick cools us off with a lengthy tutorial on the tulip. You thought you knew all about bulbs? Wrong. Those babies in 17th-century Amsterdam were often worth enough to buy a house. You can Google it.

The screenplay surprise is that it was written by the great Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Russia House”). The music is provided by the inimitable Danny Elfman.

The camerawork by Eigil Bryld (“Kinky Boots” and the wonderful “In Bruges”) and Rebecca Alleway’s sets lend the required luster.

A masterpiece it’s not, but after a summer drier than Vermont, it’s a welcome pail of ale.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former film and stage actor.

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