For Americans, Michiel de Ruyter might not be a familiar name. But the 17th century Dutch navy hero is one of the most famous historical figures in The Netherlands. A unmatched strategist, a remarkably loyal soldier and an unequaled sailor, de Ruyter helped to defend his home country from invasion a handful of times, and as the new semi-biopic “Admiral” is quick to point out, he singlehandedly united the country’s Republicans and Orangists, saving The Netherlands from civil war. All of which makes de Ruyter’s life fit for a film, though “Admiral,” as engaging and competent as it can be, is certainly not definitive.
The film opens with an impressive naval battle, in which the Dutch repel an English invasion at the tail end of the first Anglo-Dutch War. The music swells and aerial shots of the battle show the complex formations of the fleets (making certain the audience knows that this is no “Pirates Of The Caribbean” sequel) as they violently duke it out with cannons, rifles, and swords. The battle seems to end abruptly when Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp, the head of the Dutch Fleet, is killed by the invaders. His death is a major blow to the country.
Back in The Hague, the politicians are slugging it out, with the old guard Orangists, who still favor the monarch and loyally serve the Prince of Orange, struggling to take back power from the Republicans, who have managed to put Prime Minister Johan de Witt (Barry Atsma) in control of the country. But what both parties clearly understand is that finding a new admiral to lead the navy to fend off the English is the primary concern. The Orangists want Maarten Tromp’s son Cornelis, whereas de Witt wants Michiel de Ruyter (Frank Lammers). But De Ruyter is reticent —he’d rather retire to the country with his wife Anna (Sanne Langelaar) and their daughters.
But soon the English are back, and de Witt is begging de Ruyter to lead the navy. And de Ruyter, being the loyal countrymen he is, acquiesces, and with Anna’s blessing heads to sea again. And so begins “Admiral” in full force. It’s a film of expansive naval battles, parliamentary squabbles and backroom intrigue.
Caught in the middle is an almost unwitting de Ruyter. At heart, he’s a country man with no interest in the politics of The Netherlands, though he is quick to defend it and even quicker to stand up for his friend de Witt. As played by Lammers, de Ruyter is not quite soft spoken, but clearly a man of self control, confidence and thoughtful contemplation. Without ever being exciting or loveable, Lammers turns de Ruyter into a steadfast heroic figure which is almost compelling enough to carry this often sagging movie.
Similarly, the rest of the film is sharply acted. Several of the many characters in the film, such as Anna, de Ruyter’s supportive and emotive wife, don’t get much to do except play one-note roles. But Langelaar and co. make the most of these small parts, infusing the often razor sharp dialogue —courtesy of a crackling script by Lars Boom and Alex van Galen— with life and wit. Atsma invests de Witt with the gravitas of a man with a country resting on his shoulders who can still believably banter with his brother.
Where the film truly falters is in the direction and editing. More often than not, “Admiral” is fatally hard to follow. Certain aspects are subtle and left to the imagination of the audience, but the film seesaws so rapidly between battles at sea and the battles back at home that following what is actually occurring and why is truly a challenge. Granted, it doesn’t make the film unwatchable, but it does make it feel all of its 122 minutes.
The naval battles fare poorly. On the surface, they are adequately composed, with their blend of real ships and CG, but figuring out who’s who amid the cannon fire, explosions and billowing masts is nearly impossible. As captivating as the actual naval strategy could have been, it is almost completely absent from the film. Even when the battle is shown from above, presumably to highlight the maneuvers each side is taking, it’s impossible to see which ships are Dutch and which are not, or indeed what is even happening.
The film, directed by Roel Reine (a veteran of the rebooted “Death Race” franchise), also stumbles when it attempts to stuff the entire life of Michiel de Ruyter into a single film and compress the politics and wars of several decades into just two hours. But for all the elements that don’t mesh naturally, “Admiral” still manages to be intermittently engaging and fitfully exciting. [B-]