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Review: Standard procedural path saps life out of ‘The Last Vermeer’

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 19, 2020

Guy Pearce as Han van Meegeren in “The Last Vermeer.”  (Jack English/Sony Pictures)
Guy Pearce as Han van Meegeren in “The Last Vermeer.” (Jack English/Sony Pictures)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

The true story of Dutch artist Han van Meegeren is a wild one. But don’t check Wikipedia before you watch the filmed version of this World War II story, “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 suspense from the tale, 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-trodden generic tactic that saps all the life from this tale. It relegates all the salacious wartime details to flashback and memory, sidelining the ostentatious van Meegeren (played flamboyantly by Guy Pearce), to foreground 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 fall of Hitler in May 1945, Piller is tasked with sorting out the precious artworks seized from Nazi officers.

Of particular interest is a priceless painting by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, “Christ and the Adulteress,” which was obtained by Nazi bigwig Hermann Goring for a hefty sum. Hunting down collaborators (who are being shot by 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 other close confidants to deduce who sold what to whom. Was Goring 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 and sumptuously production designed by Arthur Max, who crafted the rich, plush interiors upon which 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 flourishes of genius every now and again from Pearce, having some campy fun as van Meegeren.

But even with a few courtroom theatrics and profound ethical issues to chew on, “The Last Vermeer” is ultimately a dreadfully milquetoast outing.

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