The Last Vermeer
Starring Claes Bang and Guy Pierce. Rated PG. Now playing at Cineplex and Landmark Cinemas
Drawn from Jonathan Lopez’s nonfiction book The Man Who Made Vermeers, the directorial debut of Dan Friedkin dramatizes the true story of artist Henricus Antonius “Han” van Meegeren, who ranks among the most stealthy art forgers of the 20th century. Van Meegeren swindled Nazis of millions of dollars by selling them paintings purportedly by 17th-century Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer—but that were actually forgeries he had painted himself.
Accordingly, it’s a tale that invokes a wide range of issues—from the authenticity of art to moral questions about whether ends justify dubious means—not all of which are fully satisfied by the film’s conclusion.
Beginning in 1945 after the fall of Hitler’s Reich, what appears to be a Vermeer painting, soliders uncover the painting Christ and the Adultress hidden in an Austrian salt mine. Former Dutch Resistance Capt. Joseph Piller, portrayed by Danish actor Claes Bang (who also starred in the art-world drama The Square), is now part of Allied forces, assisting the Canadian army in repatriating artworks stolen by the Nazis. Now wearing a Canadian uniform, he leads an investigation into who sold the painting to one of the most powerful leaders of the Nazis.
After the trail leads Piller to the campy socialite and artist Han van Meegereen, played colourfully by Guy Pearce, he imprisons van Meegereen for interrogation. But the crafty van Meegereen leads Piller into a mental cat-and-mouse exercise, one that simultaneously informs the audience about the world of art, veering towards didacticism.
Yet as Piller learns more and more about the origins of the painting, the drama shifts from a detective thriller into a courtroom drama, in which Piller’s objectives shift considerably.
Ethical issues about what individuals like van Meegereen resorted to doing, particularly in establishing questionable relationships, in order to survive are echoed in Piller’s crumbling marriage, as their separate actions during the war remain a point of contention between the couple.
The majority of the tale—which is compelling in itself—is played out with a sombre and dutiful seriousness (Bang included) which undermines its complex underpinnings of intrigue. As Pearce provides a bright spark in the proceedings and the story itself is compelling enough to warrant interest—particulary amid the seemingly endless number of stories that continue to emerge about the Second World War each year—perhaps van Meegereen's act as it happened could have provided the true thriller, rather than having it reframed within the post-story?