Film Review: Fine Brushwork Can’t Hide the Forgery in “The Last Vermeer”
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 20th, 2020
The Last Vermeer (Dan Friedkin, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.
Film producer and venture-capitalist billionaire Dan Friedkin makes his directorial debut with The Last Vermeer, a lush historical drama set in Holland in the aftermath of World War II. Based on a true story (recounted in Jonathan Lopez’s 2008 book The Man Who Made Vermeers), the movie tracks Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, The Square), a Dutch Jew who fought for the resistance and is now an investigator with the Allied Command hunting down Nazis and collaborators, as he follows the paper trail of a Vermeer painting sold to Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the German Luftwaffe and Hitler’s number two.
After he finds the man who brokered the deal, a Dutch painter by the name of Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce, Spinning Man), what seems at first an easy conviction quickly becomes more complicated, van Meegeren proving more than just the flamboyant bon vivant he initially appears. Caught in the political crosshairs of a new Dutch government eager to reassert itself as the Allies decamp, both Piller and Meegeren find themselves with a target on their backs. Told professionally enough and offering a sometimes-new take on well-worn storytelling terrain, the film nevertheless descends, by the end, into a variety of genre clichés that detract from the originality of its premise.
The worst of those banalities is its treatment of the female characters, reduced to projections of male ego and need. The immensely talented Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) is here condemned to play comfort food to Piller as his helpmate turned eventual lover. The same holds true for Olivia Grant (Genesis), in a similar, if more exuberant, turn as van Meegeren’s muse (and lover, too). We see glimpses in both women of their raw power as individuals, but the script never lets either shine.
The plot takes a decidedly unexpected turn (for those who do not know the history) from where it begins, which is all to the dramatic good, moving away from the stark realities of fascism – always an important topic but which has had its cinematic day and then some – into the world of art forgery. Though Pearce, an actor I usually admire, seems to relish every opportunity to ham it up a bit too much, his van Meegeren nevertheless holds enough hidden depths to bear watching. Bang is given less to do, playing dour straight man to his costar, appearing almost dull by contrast, yet still holding our interest. Their odd-couple pairing forms the dramatic spine of the movie, and what works is largely because of them.
The courtroom-drama ending brings us into all-too-familiar narrative territory, despite its twists and turns (which are, themselves, clichés, however much based on actual events). It’s hard not to stifle a yawn at the big reveal, since we could see it coming. Pearce can preen and Bang can sigh, the women can look pretty and pained by their sides, but the foregone conclusion fails to impress. Until, that is, Friedkin and company throw in a gratifying final revelation that almost redeems the earlier missteps. Like the counterfeit artwork at the center of the story, however, the impressive brushwork can’t quite hide the imitative qualities of the overall piece. Look a little too closely, and you’ll see the fraud.