In its fascination with decoration and display, Admiral confirms Fredric Jameson’s claim that postmodernity reduces the past to “a vast collection of images”.
While Dutch citizens might not know everything about the 17th-century conflicts among the Netherlands, England, and France, or all the details of the naval exploits of Michiel de Ruyter, everyone knows he is a national hero. Admiral -- the retitled, English-subtitled version of the Dutch film Michiel de Ruyter -- tells his story. Roel Reiné’s film is the second most expensive in Dutch cinema history (after Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book). It offers an uncritical take on the man and a portrait of an era when galleons ruled the waves.
While the subject matter might inspire an engaging movie, Admiral’s celebration of this history is not that movie. Compressing history, the film -- available now on VOD and open in select US theaters on 11 March -- makes it seem as though the three Anglo-Dutch Wars, which took place between 1652 and 1674, are one conflict. Even though we might accept a degree of poetic license, the omission of events or figures is problematic. There’s a brief reference to De Ruyter’s “adventures in Africa”, but his famous recapture of the slave stations of the West India Company in the mid-1660s is unrepresented. This elision of colonial history led to protests at the film’s 2015 premiere at the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.
Admiral offers instead a “heritage” version of the past in its focus on the material world of costumes, ships, interiors and locations. This museum aesthetic is showcased through Reiné’s cannibalization of Dutch Golden Age art, such that viewers can indulge in the pleasures of picture spotting. Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” (perhaps the most popular of his works in the Rijksmuseum) is recreated in the de Ruyter family kitchen in Vlissingen. More generally, Vermeer’s framing of figures, his use of light, and focus on the lines and colors of floor tiles inform countless shots. Food and furnishings all have the meticulous clarity of still lifes. Scenes inside the Dutch parliament and of men meeting evoke Rembrandt.
The ships and the naval battles, whether live action or CGI, draw on the era’s many recognizable marine canvases, which are divided between sea and sky in shades of blue and grey and densely populated with billowing sails. Just as the Dutch people gather on the beach to watch the spectacle of the Battle of Texel, so it seems Reiné gazed adoringly at Willem van de Velde the Younger’s ten-foot wide battlescape. In its fascination with decoration and display, Admiral confirms Fredric Jameson’s claim in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, that postmodernity reduces the past to “a vast collection of images”.
We see two such images in mid-creation, but their thematic effects remain uncertain. For instance, Jan de Baen’s gruesome take on the dead bodies of Johan and Cornelius de Witt appears on the easel that occupies the foreground of the screen. This cross-media meta-moment seems full of significance, raising questions about the functions of art. Are we being asked to reflect on how events are mediated and aestheticized, or perhaps on who gets to frame the story? The film doesn't explore either question, as the self-reflexivity does not seem to lead anywhere. Rather, by supplanting the actual scene it represents, the painting is symptomatic of the film itself, in which visual detail is stronger than the narrative or the characters.
The painterly aesthetic that draws our eye to formations and patterns of various sorts could be a motivated conceit, a comment on the enduring ideology of conformity in Dutch life that counterpoints the film’s rousing Republican rhetoric. But instead, I felt like I was in “Cinematography 101”, taking notes on three basic formulas. Either we start with an aerial shot and then zoom in to the thick of the action or we start from the ground (people’s feet, horses’ hooves) and pull out and up to the wider scene. Or, for the third, montages repeatedly intercut three or four scenes, so we move from an interior scene, say dancing, to an exterior, like battle formations, to the facial reactions of a single character. Lest we miss the connections asserted, slow motion imagery and portentous music (by Trevor Morris) cue us.
Similarly, props and costumes substitute for character complexity. When Charles II (Charles Dance) and William of Orange (Egbert-Jan Weeber) meet in London, we can savor their gorgeous curly wigs, the red drapes behind Charles, the trimmings on their color-contrasted outfits. It’s like watching an animated portrait: as the painting comes to life, the plot dynamic fades from view. This reliance on surfaces extends to national stereotypes: Charles’ French mistress (Aurélie Meriel) bares her breasts, presumably because the French do that sort of thing. The Dutch landscape is represented by the clichés of big skies and dykes, cobblestones and Friesian horses. And when the de Ruyters go food shopping, they buy round Dutch cheese in a market scene straight out of a tourist brochure.
As we pass through, we're left without substantive character arcs. Apart from the de Witt brothers (played by Barry Atsma and Roeland Fernhout), whose story is more interesting than de Ruyter’s and whose fraternal relationship leads to the single affecting moment in the film, it’s hard to care about anyone else. As Ferdinand Bol’s 1667 portrait confirms, de Ruyter was not leading man material. He’s portrayed here by Frank Lammers, an actor best known for his comic commercials for a Dutch supermarket chain. Viewers who lack that context will understand the farcical resonances of the heavy-set figure swinging onto an enemy ship, sabre in hand.
De Ruyter is a working man of few words, but this comes across as inarticulacy and emotional poverty. His young and beautiful wife Anna (Sanne Langelaar) spends a lot of time staring anxiously into the distance, while the camera lingers obsessively on her intricately plaited hair. Dutch national treasure Rutger Hauer makes a cameo appearance as Admiral Maarten Tromp and Dance hams it up as the wicked villain Charles II.
Throughout, the dialogue is stilted (thankfully somewhat disguised in the Dutch sections for those dependent on the subtitles). This helps to make the film feel even longer than its two-hours-plus running time. Perhaps it is best watched as VOD, you can hit pause to enjoy to visual surfaces and skip the scenes in between. About half-way through, Charles’ mistress asks about the name of a ship and the nation with whom they are at war: “Why is it called the Seven Provinces?” Charles responds angrily, “Who knows, and I don’t bloody care.” I don’t think audiences will, either.