Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Dan Friedkin
Stars: Claes Bang, Guy Pearce, Vicky Krieps, August Diehl, Olivia Grant, Roland Moller.
A little-known figure outside the art world, Han van Meegeren is a national folk hero in his native Holland. He is also recognised as one of the greatest art forgers in history. This drama, set in the aftermath of WWII and dealing with the legacy of the art works stolen by the Nazis, brings his story into sharp focus.
After the war ended, an allied force discovered a trove of Nazi art treasures hidden in a salt mine in Austria. The paintings were part of a hoarde of valuable art works stolen by top Nazi official Herman Goering from Jewish families during the war. Amongst the works was a previously unknown painting by Dutch artist Vermeer, called Christ And The Adulteress. Vermeer only painted something like 30 paintings in his brief career, which makes this rarity even more precious. Allied investigators traced the painting back to van Meegeren, a failed artist and notorious art dealer who had brokered the deal with Goering during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Van Meegeren was charged with collaborating with the enemy and put on trial for his life.
Defending van Meegeren was military officer captain Joseph Piller (played by Claes Bang, from The Square, etc), a former Jewish member of the Dutch Resistance, who was part of a team investigating the Nazis and their thefts of priceless art works. Piller became convinced of van Meegeren’s innocence after he learned that the painting in question was a clever forgery. Van Meegeren was intimately familiar with Vermeer’s style, his delicate brushwork, his methodology, and was able to create the masterwork and defraud Goering of over 1.6 million guilders.
With the assistance of hard-nosed former army pal Esper Dekker (Roland Moller, from the superb WWII drama Land Of Mine, etc) and his capable aide Minna (Vicky Krieps, from Phantom Thread, etc) Piller mounted an unusual defence for van Meegren in the courtroom. Van Meegeren was not collaborating with the Nazis, rather he was defrauding them with his clever forgeries. Piller faced off against the cold and unsympathetic prosecutor De Klerks (August Diehl, from A Hidden Life, etc) to champion van Meegren and prove his innocence.
Originally entitled Lyrebird, The Last Vermeer is based on a true story, documented in Jonathan Lopez’s 2008 nonfiction book The Man Who Made Vermeers, which has been adapted to the screen by John Orloff (Band Of Brothers, etc), and Iron Man scribes Mark Fergus and HawK Ostby. A morally ambiguous tale, the film explores themes of art and commerce, the value of critics, culture and history, and it also explores that thirst for revenge against enemies and collaborators following the end of war. It paints an intriguing portrait of the flamboyant, eccentric and enigmatic van Meegeren. But the film does take some liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes – for example, the character of Piller is a fictitious character – and it all culminates in a gripping if somewhat conventional courtroom trial.
Guy Pearce delivers a suitably flamboyant performance here as the mysterious, dissolute and eccentric but charming van Meegeren, and he obviously relishes this colourful role with a scenery chewing performance during the climactic courtroom confrontations. In his third film centring on the art world, Bang has a strong presence as the square-jawed Piller, who has a strong sense of right and wrong and justice.
The Last Vermeer marks an auspicious directorial debut for Dan Freidkin, a former stuntman turned film producer, who has worked on films like All The Money In The World and The Mule, and The Square, etc. This is a handsomely crafted film, with some great production design from Arthur Max that captures the sumptuous interiors and the war-ravaged streets of Holland. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (Match Point, etc) uses a suitably dull palette that effectively captures the period and matches that of the famed artist himself.