Review: ‘The Last Vermeer’ squanders Guy Pearce and high-stakes art forgery
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The true story of Dutch artist Han van Meegeren is a wild one, but don’t check it out on Wikipedia before you watch this tale of World War II and its aftermath, “The Last Vermeer,” based on the book “The Man Who Made Vermeers” by Jonathan Lopez (or, perhaps do).
“The Last Vermeer” is the directorial debut of producer and stunt pilot Dan Friedkin, the screenplay adapted by James McGee, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby. To inject some suspense, the writers have taken Van Meegeren’s story and wrapped it inside a Nazi art investigation that morphs into a showy courtroom drama. It’s a well-trod generic tactic, but one that saps all the life from this tale, relegating the salacious wartime details to flashback and memory, sidelining the ostentatious Van Meegeren (played flamboyantly by Guy Pearce), to foreground a stoic Allied officer and former Dutch Resistance member, Capt. Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), as the unproblematic protagonist.
During the rocky transition from Nazi occupation after the Allied liberation of Europe and the fall of Nazi Germany in May 1945, Piller is tasked with sorting out the precious works of art seized from Nazi officers. Of particular interest is a priceless painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, “Christ and the Adulteress,” which was obtained by Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring for a hefty sum. In his search for collaborators (who are being shot by a firing squad in the street), Piller tracks down Van Meegeren, an erstwhile artist, art dealer and bon vivant.
The artist swears his own innocence, but Piller imprisons him in a gallery attic while he tracks down his close confidants to deduce who sold what to whom. Was Göring merely a fan of Dutch Golden Age painting, or was he competitive with Hitler? Was the expensive artwork a guise for laundering money? Is this particular painting worth anything, and who is the arbiter of that value?
“The Last Vermeer” is handsomely shot by Remi Adefarasin, with sumptuous production designed by Arthur Max, who crafted the rich, plush interiors where the investigation plays out. There’s plenty of material for an exploration of the ethical complications of life in an occupied country, something that deeply troubles Piller at home and at work. Not to mention the philosophical conversations about the valuation of art, a topic upon which Van Meegeren, the critically derided artist, expounds at length.
But for a film that is built on layers of lies and information, the script makes almost no effort to conceal or reveal information: All that text is right there on the surface, and therefore, there’s barely a shred of mystery or intrigue. The only question worth pursuing is where allegiances lie, a quandary that bedevils the blandly heroic Piller, a man whose only crumb of characterization is that he’s a “Dutch Jew in a Canadian uniform.” Even worse, the brilliant Luxembourger actress Vicky Krieps is utterly wasted in a grievously underwritten role as his assistant.
The film capably, if expectedly, proceeds down this standard procedural path, progressing from investigation to trial, with periodic flourishes of genius from Pearce, having some campy fun as Van Meegeren. But even with a few courtroom theatrics and some profound ethical issues to chew on, “The Last Vermeer” is ultimately a dreadfully milquetoast outing.
‘The Last Vermeer’
Rated: R, for some language, violence and nudity.
Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 20 in limited release where theaters are open
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