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.