Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Admiral: When the Dutch Outsailed England and Spain

It is the second most expensive Dutch film of all time, ranking just below Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. It is hard to fathom how the budget for a WWII Dutch occupation drama could exceed a full scale Seventeenth Century naval epic. Maybe it was Verhoeven’s lattes. Regardless, the exploits of Michiel de Ruyter never look small or cheap on-screen in Roel Reiné’s The Admiral (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

In the Seventeenth Century, naval power was everything. Britain and Spain had it—and so did the Dutch, sort of. Despite the successes of the soon-to-be-late national hero, Admiral Maarten Tromp, the battered Dutch fleet is in need of an overhaul. Cantankerous Michiel de Ruyter is just the man to do it. He has the Orangist (Royalist) background that the rank-and-file seem to trust, but he has never been overtly political. After reluctantly accepting the position, de Ruyter rather surprises himself by throwing his lot in with the republicans and befriending their leader, Johan de Witt.

Holland was indeed a republic, predating the independent United States. In fact, it was quite a prosperous one, which made it a target multiple times over for the absolute monarchs of Spain and Britain. Of course, as Ben Franklin pointed out, having a republic is one thing. Keeping it is another. The Dutch would lose theirs for some time, but through no fault of de Ruyter. The titular admiral would even continue to serve under William III, who would do quite well for himself as part of the William and Mary tandem.

Reiné and screenwriter Lars Boom and Alex van Galen cogently condense quite a bit of Dutch political history into The Admiral, but the whole point of the film is the naval action. Reiné does not disappoint, bringing plenty of spectacle and bombast, but also clearly rendering the tactical maneuvering. Frankly, it is easier to follow what de Ruyter is planning than trying to make heads or tails of America’s Cup television coverage. Reiné can also stage quite an effective mob riot, which is nearly as cinematic, but less edifying.

Frank Lammers does not exactly cut a dashing figure but he is apparently a good likeness of the de Ruyter statues you can find in nearly every Dutch public park. He plays the admiral accordingly, with plenty of prickliness and salty gravitas. You can understand why men would sail into cannon fire for him. Similarly, Barry Atsma is charismatically fiery as the cunning but principled de Witt. The reliably villainous Charles Dance really pulls out all the sinister stops as the hedonistic, Machiavellian Charles II. However, Egbert-Jan Weber’s underwhelming William III never grows in stature, even when he starts to assert his power.

The bottom line for The Admiral is the naval action, which looks great. With its three specially constructed masted vessels, The Admiral is a good example of how to augment practical effects with CGI. Recommended for fans of seafaring action (consider it the Dutch equivalent of the Korean smash hit, The Admiral: Roaring Currents), Reiné’s The Admiral opens this Friday (3/11) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema.