Producers: Ryan Friedkin, Dan Friedkin and Bradley Thomas Director: Dan Friedkin Screenplay: James McGee, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby Cast: Guy Pearce, Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps, Roland Møller, August Diehl, Olivia Grant, Adrian Scarborough, Andrew Havill, Karl Johnson, Paul Bentall, Richard Dillane and Marie Bach Hansen Distributor: Sony Entertainment/TriStar Pictures
The engrossing story of Han van Meegeren, the master art forger who became a Dutch national hero when it was proven—after he’d been charged in 1045 as a Nazi collaborator—that he had actually bilked Hermann Göring by selling him a fake Vermeer for an astronomical sum during the war, is recounted in suitably heightened form in long-time producer but first-time director Dan Friedkin’s handsomely mounted film. While based on Jonathan Lopez’s 2008 non-fiction book “The Man Who Made Vermeers”—one of several tomes about the man produced in recent years—“The Last Vermeer” is hardly a docu-drama; it’s a tale founded on fact but constructed as a mystery, and while one can quibble about the liberties it takes for dramatic effect, as a courtroom drama it works remarkably well.
That’s largely to an exceptional performance by Guy Pearce as van Meegeren, who makes his appearance in the picture only after an opening dominated by Claes Bang. He plays Joseph Piller, a Dutch Jew, a tailor in civilian life, who had been part of the wartime resistance and is now in Canadian uniform as part of the Allied force temporarily in charge as a post-war government is restored. His job is to track down war criminals, sometimes through stolen artworks, and in the process he discovers the hitherto unknown Vermeer sold to Göring.
Going step by step through the links in the sale, Piller traces the painting’s provenance back to van Meegeren, the flamboyant, wealthy, hedonistic painter/collector whom he takes into custody on suspicion of having conspired to sell priceless artwork to the Nazis. Van Meegeren enigmatically suggests that there is an alternate explanation for his actions but insists that his proof requires that Piller allow him to paint—and Piller, both appalled and fascinated by the man, not only agrees but protects him against the machinations of Alex De Klerks (August Diehl), his rival from the civilian Justice Department, to cart him away for what amounts to summary justice.
Political realities nonetheless put van Meegeren in police custody and on trial as a collaborator. Piller, convinced of his innocence on the charge, decides to serve as his spokesman in court, aided by his faithful secretary Minna (Vicky Krieps) and earthy right-hand man Espen (Roland Møller), along with aged lawyer Bernard Bakker (Karl Johnson), who serves as nominal defense counsel. They are confronted not only by De Klerks and an able prosecutor (Andrew Havill), but by the Dutch art establishment represented by a smug, rotund museum director and self-proclaimed Vermeer expert (Adrian Scarborough), who proclaims that Göring’s painting is definitely genuine.
That opens the opportunity not only for courtroom theatrics at the highest level, but for Pearce to take center stage, presenting van Meegeren as a preening peacock who cajoles the crowd until Piller can play the trump card proving how his client fooled everyone with his peculiar genius. Here Pearce, who has for years demonstrated craft and subtlety as an actor, confirms his own special talent by his utter theft of the movie from the capable crowd surrounding him. Even a postscript which puts Piller back in charge and unmasks van Meegeren as something other than the heroic figure the trial has suggested—a coda that, while not a complete fabrication, has been repositioned from earlier in the process–doesn’t dim Pearce’s utter control.
There are elements of “The Last Vermeer” that don’t really work, extraneous bits that just clutter the smooth trajectory of the plot. A sidebar about a collaborator of van Meegeren’s who must be found in order to prove his case turns out to be a dead end, a red herring simply disposed of when it becomes inconvenient. Subplots about van Meegeren’s ex-wife and Piller’s doubts about how his own spouse (Marie Bach Hansen) survived during the occupation are perhaps intended to add some depth to their characters, but are ineffectual at best. An intimation of possible romance between Piller and Minna goes nowhere, and though the introduction of van Meegeren’s sultry assistant (Olivia Grant) italicizes his libertine ways, she’s not really necessary. Of course, one can also point to numerous places, like the coda, where the script fudges the record in the name of crowd-pleasing—the specifics of the trial most of all (actually, the Vermeer was proven a forgery before any trial occurred; in fact, the trial was on charges of forgery, not collaboration).
But all of that doesn’t seriously diminish the pleasure of the movie, which might distort the facts and stumble a bit along the way, but, thanks largely to Pearce, remains greatly entertaining. It’s also, as one might expect of Friedkin, expertly made from a technical perspective. Arthur Max’s production design and Guy Speranza’s costumes are convincing in their period detail, and Remi Adefarasin’s cinematography, making excellent used of Dutch and English locations, has a properly painterly glow. Victoria Boydell’s editing skillfully accentuates the deliberate pacing dictated by Friedkin, and Johan Söderqvist’s score is unobtrusively effective.
“The Last Vermeer” isn’t the catchiest title in the world, but it probably beats “Lyrebird,” the original one—after the Australian bird adept at mimicking the sounds around it. Whatever the title, though, the movie is, perhaps surprisingly, a very enjoyable art thriller.