A mixture of fact and fiction that delights in its real-world rooting, but takes flamboyant liberties all the same, The Last Vermeer is a cat-and-mouse thriller set just after World War II that bases its narrative around the unlikely environment of the importance of art and the industry that may have funded espionage.
Central to the film is Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Jewish member of the Dutch Resistance, and Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce, having an awful lot of fun), a painter and art dealer who admits to making millions off his dealings with the Nazis. There’s one particular work of art that Piller takes interest in, a Johannes Vermeer “masterpiece” known as “Christ and the Adulteress”, something that van Meegeren sold to Nazi Party leader Hermann Göring for upwards of 1.6 million guilder; a figure that van Meegeren accompanies with a statement “Which proves that pigs have good taste or too much money.”
His actions see him dubbed a war criminal, but van Meegeren claims these so-called Vermeers are fakes – paintings that he himself created in a bid to defraud the Nazis. A court case follows, one that paints him as someone collaborating with the known enemy, whilst also shining a light on the objectivity of artwork and those who deem them valuable or not; Adrian Scarborough providing nice, smarmy support as an art critic whose credentials come seriously into question as the case continues.
Though the historical figures featured or mentioned throughout The Last Vermeer are of considerable weight, there’s just enough theatricality present to keep the film from crumbling under too much severity. Pearce, of all the cast members, is the one having the most fun, and though he’s prone to dramatic outbursts, his van Meegeren never crosses over into caricature. If not for Pearce the film would perhaps be a bit more of a lifeless experience, though nonetheless handsomely made and interesting enough to keep momentum.
The Last Vermeer allows plenty of room for thought, though it doesn’t necessarily provide definitive answers for the questions it poses, which in itself is probably a deliberate ploy to lean into the film’s notion that art is subjective and you take away from it what you will. van Meegeren’s conundrum that his work was only viewed as genius when it was the under the guise of someone else opens up its own avenue of conversation, and whilst such a film as this will unlikely remain in the forefront of its audience’s psyche, it can at least be proud it earns temporary shelf life as a thinking feature after the credits have ended.
The Last Vermeeris screening in Australian cinemas from March 25th, 2021.