Authenticating “The Last Vermeer” is a fresh entrée into the history of the immediate aftermath of World War II, with Guy Pearce (“Momento,” “LA Confidential”) as a modern Dutch painter at the center of a fraud investigation.
Side note, I am enjoying the recent trend exploring the transition time period right after World War II that also includes the Keira Knightley post war love story “The Aftermath.” Complemented by a gifted cinematographer’s use of Vermeer’s own palette and renowned approach to light, this film based on a true story certainly captures the ambiance of the time, if not the imagination of the audience.
Pearce portrays Han Van Meegeren, a failed artist and second-rate art dealer who is nevertheless known as a competent restorer in post war Dutch Country. When he is accused of working with the Nazis to profit on the sale of Vermeers during the war to support his lavish lifestyle while his countrymen and women suffered, he mounts an elaborate defense that means pleading guilty to a lesser charge — forgery.
Both aided and hindered in this defense by his appointed military attorney and former tailor, Van Meegeren’s character is called into question as a philandering party boy fond of drugs. His slippery personality constantly plays both sides, but just what kind of criminal is he — a Nazi collaborator or a forger and profiteer?
Though the soundtrack sometimes gets ahead of the plot, trying to push the mood by manufacturing intensity where there is none, the landscape of the film makes up for it with some of the best moments being quiet scenes out a train window or across a gloomy street — of the destruction, the aftermath, and the starving solitary citizens left post-war. The war is over, so some of that tension is missing and pursuing the origin of some 300-year-old paintings just can’t create the same urgency. In that regard, I prefer “Monuments Men,” God help me.
The plot is full of suspicion and mistrust between husbands and wives, Nazis and Jews, soldiers old and new as well as art dealers and artists. What they come to understand by the end is that they all did what they had to do to survive during the war and no one is guiltier than anyone else, but determining the difference between just making a living and conspiring with Nazis is the hard part for each of them.
In the hands of the same producer as “Destroyer,” “Ben is Back” and “The Mule”, “The Last Vermeer” has the expected high-quality production value, but instead as a first-time director Dan Friedkin’s piece feels a bit one-dimensional, like the paintings at the center of it.