Guy Pearce, who played Andy Warhol in the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl, plays yet another 20th-century artist in Dan Friedkin’s The Last Vermeer, Dutch painter and art dealer Han van Meegeren. Imbuing the character with equal parts charm, arrogance, exuberance, and a deep well of humor that never deserts him even as van Meegeren faces the gallows, the actor is riveting in this delicious slice of historical drama.
In the Netherlands in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Dutch judicial system is running full speed to punish those who collaborated with the Nazis. Among the targets of the investigations is van Meegeren, who sold one of the country’s national treasures, a rare work by 17th-century master Johannes Vermeer, to Nazi leader Hermann Goering. Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, The Square), a former Resistance fighter, is the man leading the inquiry. At first certain of the artist’s collaboration with the enemy, that conviction wavers in the face of van Meegeren’s spirited defense that casts his actions in a vastly different light.
At times, The Last Vermeer takes on the suspenseful tones of a thriller as Piller finds himself at odds with a judicial bureaucracy that has already made up its mind and is out for blood. But eventually the film settles into an involving courtroom drama. That van Meegeren’s guilt has been predetermined is understandable. Even without the receipt of sale for the looted Dutch masterpiece, the artist’s opulent lifestyle in a country where most of the population has suffered deprivation and hardship simply looks bad. How was he able to keep his fortune in a country occupied by Nazis? In defending him, Piller has his work cut out for him, and part of the pleasure in watching the film, is watching that defense unfold. The question of van Meegeren’s actual relationship with the German high command lingers tantalizingly over the proceedings. Is he innocent? Guilty? A trickster who is both at once?
In contrast to Pearce’s ebullience, Bang offers a sober portrayal of a man trying to do the right thing. A Jewish man who covertly fought the Nazis, Piller is well aware of what collaboration with them meant, even if collaboration in this instance was selling a piece of art and not overtly aiding the Nazis’ war/genocidal efforts. A man of conscience, he seeks justice, not revenge, which puts him at odds with the prevailing mood. His insistence on following the case wherever it leads sets him against an unforgiving system. He is the beating heart of the film, a hero of the resistance who is still fighting the good fight.
Based on van Meegeren’s tribulations after the war and adapted from Jonathan Lopez’s book, The Last Vermeer shines a tantalizing light on a small chapter of World War II. Weaving together biography, the force of two strong personalities, and the legend of a Dutch master, it is a potent blend of drama with the history of art and war. –Pam Grady
The Last Vermeer opens in theaters November 20.