Three and 1/2 Stars Out of Four Stars
(***1/2 out of ****)
Marrying the razor-thin genres of post-World War II and art forgery, “The Last Vermeer” is an art film posing as a traditional procedural/courtroom drama. This adds another cinematic chapter to the memory of one of the least known, but most highly-influential of all Dutch master painters.
Before dying penniless in 1675, Johannes Vermeer produced 34 confirmed paintings, all of which are now priceless masterpieces.
Unlike his many of his peers from the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer was largely ignored by historians, that is until the late 19th century when critics (Théophile Thoré-Bürger in particular) and collectors began reevaluating his work and lavished the praise and respect he deserved.
This newfound appreciation and restored legend had a great effect on Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), another Dutch painter who was dismissed by the art world intelligentsia and didn’t react well to these slightings.
Fueled by vengeance and wrath, van Meegeren began a career of forging Vermeer and other Dutch masters, but unlike other forgers who only copied well-known works, he created “new” pieces which he later sold as “lost” and “undiscovered.”
He became very wealthy in the process.
One of van Meegeren’s most famous creations (“Christ With the Adulteress”) was eventually acquired by Hermann Göring, one of the most powerful members of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi inner-circle.
Göring traded 137 other far-more valuable albeit stolen pieces with van Meegeren for “Christ With the Adulteress” which hung in his private residence.
It was only after the war ended was the painting, like many others in Nazi hands, recovered by the Allies. This led to an investigation headed by Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Jewish Dutch officer charged with merely locating the rightful owners of the confiscated works.
It wasn’t long before Piller and his associates were able to trace many of the pieces back to van Meegeren who by this time had lost all of his fortune to an ex-wife, drank way too much, and was addicted to narcotics. When it became clear to Piller that other parties wanted a piece of van Meegeren, he took it upon himself to sequester the forger for his own well-being.
If you think you’ve been given too much plot detail, rest assured, you haven’t.
All of the above takes place in the first 15 minutes of the nearly two-hour film.
In adapting the book “The Man Who Made Vermeers” by Jonathan Lopez, producer/first-time feature director Dan Friedkin and his (maybe one too many) three screenwriters have crafted a period piece with painstaking attention to detail and dialogue which is not only of its era, but is also delivered with the proper tone, cadence, and rhythm.
The players neither speak too fast nor artificially slow it down for effect and the frequent use of silence eventually becomes another character in the story.
The filmmakers also employ the far-too-often-crutch of flashback, not as tool to patch holes in the screenplay, but to raise doubt regarding van Meegeren’s alliances and motives.
Was his hoodwinking of Göring just the means to an end in order to line his pockets or was he trying to worm his way into the Nazi hierarchy?
Or, maybe he was trying to exact some form of revenge, however minor, on the Third Reich, (a’ la Oskar Schindler/”Schindler’s List”) from a position of creative power.
The questions get no immediate answer from van Meergeren, whose fey, almost indifferent reaction to his incarceration belies a man who could easily be put to death by firing squad if convicted of treason.
While Piller and the aggressive (possibly former Nazi) investigator Alex de Klerks (August Diehl) each want answers and maybe his hide, the seemingly unflappable van Meegeren bides his time with yet more drink and creating more paintings.
A criminally underrated actor totally at ease playing unreliable/suspicious supporting characters (“L.A. Confidential,” “Memento,” “The King’s Speech”), Pearce completely owns the movie, even when van Meegeren is not on-screen.
While not his first lead performance, it is by far his best to date and he would be fully deserving of an Oscar nomination for the next Academy Awards (actual event date still in-flux).
You don’t have to be an art-lover (paintings, movies, or otherwise) or war movies to appreciate what’s going on in “The Last Vermeer.”
It’s both a “spider-and-fly” and “cat-and-mouse” sort of affair where the lines between the protagonists and the antagonists are constantly being blurred.
We don’t know until the last few minutes the final fates of van Meergeren, Piller and others and to Friedkin’s credit, he makes the wait worth the investment of our time.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to view the film without making some sort of comparison to our current national political situation. When presented with two unenviable options: falsely changing the outcome of an election or remaining silent while knowing it’s all going down, which is worse?
Altering the results to satisfy your own and/or other’s agendas for any reason is unforgivable under any circumstances. Period.
Originally from Washington, D.”C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark’s Reports — More Here.
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