By Lynn Venhaus
War criminal or war hero? Man of mystery artist and art dealer Han van Meegeren became a man of infamy after World War II. But his true story has been mostly forgotten until “The Last Vermeer,” which recounts this notorious case in a melodramatic and twisty narrative.
The time is 1945 and the place is Holland. The found painting is “Christ and the Adulteress” by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer of the 17th century baroque period.
van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) is suspected of selling stolen Dutch art treasures to Hermann Goering and other upper echelon Nazis during World War II. Now that the war is over, Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Dutch Jew, becomes an investigator assigned to identify and redistribute the paintings. Van Meegeren is accused of collaboration, which is a crime punishable by death. Piller and his assistant (Vicky Krieps) are convinced he’s innocent – despite mounting evidence – and will fight to save his life.
The procedural screenplay, written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, is based on an adaptation of Jonathan Lopez’s, “The Man Who Made Vermeers,” and gets considerable mileage from Guy Pearce as the flamboyant van Meegeren.
The role gives theb Australian actor plenty of scenery to chew, for the art dealer was a smooth operator. After the Germans occupied the Netherlands, he threw lavish parties and showed no signs of a moral compass.
Pearce, who disappears into every role he’s in, from “L.A. Confidential” and “Memento” to “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Iron Man 3,” digs in and is quite saucy about the secrets he’s hiding.
All that hedonism rubs stoic soldier Joseph Piller the wrong way, although he’s not above resorting to shenanigans to keep the government stooges out of his way. As colorful as van Meegeren is, Piller is lacking in flavor. Bang, so good in “The Square” and “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” both movies dealing with art, is rather dull and stiff here.
The women characters are underserved and the supporting cast plays standard characters all in service to the story, which leads us to a climactic court scene full of fireworks. Van Meegeren’s argument is that he defrauded the Nazis, no collaboration.
The movie’s a tad clumsy under the first-time direction by Dan Friedkin but redeems itself in the final third.
With “The Last Vermeer,” there seems to be an endless stream of World War II characters whose story is enough to build a film around, like “Resistance” earlier this year.
The film’s courtroom drama outshines its thriller elements. It serves a purpose as both a history lesson and an art tutorial.
“The Last Vermeer” is a drama, directed by Dan Friedkin and stars Guy Pearce, Claes Bang and Vicky Krieps.
Rated R for some language, violence and nudity, the run-time is 1 hr. 58 minutes. Lynn’s Grade:: B-. The film opened in theatres on Nov. 20,
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.