Sunday, 6 March 2016

Review: Admiral (2015)

The Admiral (2015) tells a story of Michiel de Ruyter (1607-1676), a famous Dutch admiral who managed to put up a decent fight against the naval might of England during the Anglo-Dutch wars. Rather than telling the full story of his rise to fame in the Caribbean and elsewhere, the film focusses on the c. ten last years of de Ruyter's career when he was chosen to lead the confederate fleet. For me, this is a bit of an unknown topic - for some reason my knowledge of Dutch history and naval power has pretty much been limited to the powerful East India Company, so my commentary on historical accuracy is somewhat limited in this review.

The story takes place during the era of the Dutch Republic where the country had no king and was pretty much ruled by the republican, Johan de Witt, who opposed the power of the House of Orange. The republican ideology of the Dutch is feared by the English, who have only recently emerged from their own similar troubles, and France and England especially love to harass the Dutch trade empire. De Ruyter is chosen as the admiral of their fleet soon after his return from the Caribbean when he learns that the previous fleet admiral has been killed in a sea battle. Thereafter he engages in various heroics and becomes even more popular. His only problem is that he is good friends with the republicans and the Orangists see him as their enemy alongside de Witts.

Overall, it seems that the film is surprisingly loyal to real historical events. However, it compresses the history of about ten years into what seems like little more than one. This can best be seen in how de Ruyter's children do not seem to age at all. In fact, the best way to tell the passing of time are the names of battles that are occasionally shown on screen, but as there are no years given, it requires some knowledge of history. Likewise, the story makes it seem as if the Second and the Third Anglo-Dutch wars took place entirely in and around Europe, although many important battles were also fought in the Caribbean. In fact, de Ruyter took his fleet to the Caribbean both before and after he became the admiral.

The film is not only loyal to the events of real history, it also succeeds very nicely as a film: de Ruyter is made approachable and relateable by showing his family life when he is ashore (although perhaps a tad too transparently to really convince), de Witts and the Prince of Orange get enough of screen time for us to get to know at least some of their character, and the overall story line is easy to follow even to those who are not necessarily interested in naval history. Also the historicity of the characters' outfits seem very good and the filming locations are well chosen to plausibly stand in as 17th century settings. The film offers several nice glimpses of everyday life and, on one occasion, you may spot Rembrandt himself carrying one of his paintings on a street. And, of course, the sail ships themselves looked very good.

The few negative points that I might mention include the fact that because the film rushed through about ten years of history, some of the transitions were rather abrupt. Especially where the viewer was not given a proper idea of the passage of time. Also the sea battles were a little repetitive, showing very similar explosions of wood splinters, men and even cannon thrown around like rag dolls. Some top-down shots (pure CGI, actually) attempted to show how the fleets moved, but even these were somewhat unclear at times. Despite this, none of the battles actually made you feel them or care much about the fates of the characters - perhaps because you never get introduced to any of the crew. Fortunately, the other scenes still made me care enough for de Witts and de Ruyter for their eventual fates to affect me.

Overall, the film is certainly worth it to a history enthusiast and is an unexpectedly good period piece. For once, the script writers have realised that history itself presents a good enough story and have not ruined it by introducing the usual Hollywood tropes. Even the actors are well chosen and bear some similarities with their historical counterparts. So, go and see it if you haven't already!