The Last Vermeer (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Better to be a forger than a traitor

“The Last Vermeer” is a modest period drama film which becomes compelling whenever its untrustworthy but undeniably fascinating real-life figure enters the screen. Here is an unabashedly opportunistic dude who cleverly duped many others including the Nazis during the World War II while also benefiting himself a lot, and it is rather amusing to observe he came to get away with his criminal deeds in addition to rebranding himself as a national folk hero.

However, the main focus of the movie lies on the other main character in the story, and the early part of the movie quickly establishes what this character is doing in the Netherlands not long after the end of the World War II in 1945. Heaps of valuable artworks were recently found inside a covert storage site of the Nazis in Germany, and it is the job of Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) to track down any Dutch person who helped the Nazis collecting some of these artworks during the wartime. As a Dutch Allied officer of Jewish descent, Piller certainly has no sympathy for Nazi collaborators at all, and he is already determined to do his job to the end along with his dependable assistant Minna Holberg (Vicky Krieps).

One of the most valuable items in the bunch is a certain famous painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, which was regarded as one of the most valuable artworks in the Netherlands before the war. During the war, it was bought by one of Hilter’s most prominent inner circle members, and Piller is quite interested in who actually arranged this traitorous purchase at that time. Along with his right-hand guy Esper Vesser (Roland Møller), he soon tracks down someone who may give the information on that figure in question, and that is how they subsequently arrive at the front door of the house belonging to a guy named Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce).

While Piller does not hide his intention at all during his first encounter with van Meegeren, van Meegeren remains surprisingly aloof and casual even as being taken to a prison later, and Piller later comes to see that he is not the only one interested in whatever van Meegeren may tell. As a matter of fact, a bunch of local detectives from the Dutch government are also sent for investigating van Meegeren, and Piller does not trust these guys that much mainly because he knows well how willing the Dutch government is to cover up some of Nazi collaborators in the Netherlands.

In the end, Piller comes to take van Meegeren to a safer place for preventing any contact between van Meegeren and anybody else besides him, and then van Meegeren makes some curious demands for drawing something. It is clear that he does know something about that Vermeer painting, but he is not someone who will tell everything instantly, and, for now, he only gives Piller a few clues for his ongoing investigation.

As he goes further into who van Meegeren was during the wartime, Piller comes to suspect and despise van Meegeren more. Although he was once a talented and promising painter, van Meegeren subsequently let himself pursue money and pleasure more instead of art, and he did not mind at all getting associated with the Nazis and some of those Nazi collaborators just because that suit well his luxurious hedonistic lifestyle.

However, Piller subsequently finds himself passionately defending van Meegeren after finally coming to learn about what van Meegeren actually did before and during the wartime. While he might be not that good enough to distinguish himself as an artist, van Meegeren found his calling in art forgery, and his forgery skills were so good that even those respectable Vermeer experts were thoroughly fooled by his several results, which were simply presented as Vermeer’s newly discovered works.

The second half of the movie mainly revolves around the following trial whose outcome depends on whether Piller can prove van Meegeren’s forgery in front of the judges, and the screenplay by John Orloff, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby, which is based on Jonathan Lopez’ book “The Man Who Made Vermeers”, is rather heavy-handed during this part. I do not know how much the movie was actually close to its real-life story, but several big moments during this part feel artificial in my humble opinion, and the movie also goes a bit too far for dramatic effects at one certain point around the expected finale.

Nevertheless, the movie still engages us mainly due to the showy lead performance by Guy Pearce, who is simply fun as savoring every delicious moment of his in the film. Ably balancing his sly and elusive character between fascination and distrust, Pearce brings some necessary humor and energy into the story, and his flamboyant appearance is also complemented well by the stoic appearance of Claes Bang, who does as much as he can do for filling his relatively thankless role. In case of several other notable performers in the film, Roland Møller and August Diehl are unfortunately stuck with their functional characters, and the same thing can be said about Vicky Krieps, who is reliable as usual but often feels under-utilized.

Directed by Dan Friedkin (No, he is not related to William Friedkin), “The Last Vermeer” is rather plain on the surface, and I think it could be much more interesting if it delved more into van Meegeren’s life and career, but it is mildly recommendable for its several good elements including Pearce’s enjoyable acting. It did not surprise me much, but I was entertained enough at least, so I will not grumble for now.

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