Transfer: Very Good
Label: Mongrel Media
Region: 1 (NTSC)
Released: April 4, 2016
Genre: Biography / Historical Drama / War / Epic
Synopsis: Action-packed and political bio-drama on Holland’s brilliant navy strategist, Michiel de Ruyter, and the gradual founding of the Netherlands.
Special Features: Making-of Featurette.
Sure to vanish on home video is Roel Reiné’s stirring account of Michiel de Ruyer, the Dutch admiral regarded as one of the greatest navy strategists in history. Heavyset, temperamental and proud, de Ruyter’s life was distilled by screenwriters Lars Bloom and Alex van Galen into a lean narrative that still manages to convey the horrible turmoil of Holland when, as a youthful republic, it uses every advantage at had to fight off colonial bullies England, France, and Germany.
De Ruyter rose to prominence after the death of Maarten Tromp, the celebrated admiral killed in action, who (on film) tells his younger colleague to keep protecting the Netherlands from Euro bullies plotting to carve up the nascent country like a soft block of cheese. Several unique battles humiliate the French and Brits, and de Ruyter becomes a folk hero while more powerful royal forces realize he may one pose a threat to their dominion of a united people.
At odds is the royal House of Orange versus republicans led by the charismatic Johan de Witt, and when the two finally battle for dominance, the results are absolute brutality and sending de Ruyter on a suicide mission to Spain from where he’s expected never to return. Reiné blends certain historical events (including de Ruyter’s final mission), but they’re not too egregious, and at least reflect the spirit of the film’s central hero.
More unusual is the gradual critique of Dutch King Willem III who doesn’t come off as regal: he’s an effete boy kind totally insulated from brutality, and yet his youth and often being chided and written off by peers – including Britain’s King Charles II, his uncle – stir up enough loathing that after enough seething, push him to establish a united country.
Charles II also represents the depraved, hugely entitled figures who traded chunks of countries for power, and seeded future influence by incestuously marrying off relatives; instead of actual countries led by nationalistic figures, emerging Europe’s lands were controlled by family fiefdoms that bickered like brats. Admiral may tell the bloody story of Holland’s formation, but it’s also a critique of despotism and smug elitists, making de Ruyter, a hands-on, self-made noble man who worked and fought alongside his men, all the more tragic. The final shot of his tomb is moving, but from the filmmakers’ stance, it’s also stained with the blood of a king who sanctioned de Ruyter’s suicide mission.
The inclusion of British, French, and German characters at the peripherals certainly helps the film’s international appeal, but it’s mostly Dutch cast may have limited its box office runs in major markets, which is a shame because Admiral is one of the best naval war films and historical epics in recent years.
Reiné, also a seasoned cameraman who served as the film’s cinematographer, shoves his camera deep into the bowels of ships to capture the nasty conditions of ship-to-ship warfare for grunts. The detail-oriented director also shows the horror of a cannonball hit which sends massive chunks of wood asunder, impaling and tearing away whole body parts. The detail, scope, and kinetic action of each battle is remarkable for seamlessly blending superior practical effects with subtle digital, and taking a nod from War and Peace (1966) and Waterloo (1970) director Sergei Bondarchuk, Reiné uses aerial shots to map out the complexities of ships as rival nations maneuver intro strategic positions; there’s no confusion as to how de Ruyter was victorious and why he’s regarded as a master strategist.
Costumes and locales are equally impressive, especially the simple shots of locals climbing up sand bands to witness nation-changing battles on the water. The close view of foreigners landing on the beach is clean, clear, and terrifying.
Perhaps the film’s secondary tragic hero is Johan de Witt, who aimed for a republic and was killed in a nasty night of medieval brutality. The contrast within the film is extremely stark: amid gorgeous clothes, military brilliance, and a nascent parliamentary assembly to bridge ideological and political parties, medieval minds could be manipulated into a mob that dragged de Witt into a courtyard, hacked off body parts, removed his heart and member, and reportedly offering the latter to the mob as a bloody delicacy.
There isn’t a weak link in the fine cast of Dutch actors, with Frank Lammers superb as de Ruyter, Barry Atsma affecting as the doomed de Wiit, Derek de Lint gloomy as the manipulative Kievit, and Hajo Bruins conveying the multilayered humiliation in being the son and expected successor to the elder Maarten Tromp. As Cornelis, Bruins is fairly grim, but it suits an upper class character forced to watch a corpulent streetfighter become Admiral based on street-smart intellect, merit, and skills rather than patronage and a family name.
Charles Dance is slimy and revolting as bored King Charles II, and although he’s given upper billing, Rutger Hauer’s portrayal of Maarten Tromp feels like stunt casting, or an over-billed cameo: after mortally wounded in battle, Hauer utters a few words and is dead – gone from the film minutes after the Main Titles have ended.
Mongrel Media’s DVD includes an English dub track, but stick to the original Dutch. The sound design is first-rate, and Trevor Morris’ score hits all the right marks without overstating the inherent melodrama of tragic lives and pivotal historic events. The disc also includes a making-of featurette, but what’s really missing is a Blu-ray of this epic.
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review