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‘The Last Vermeer’ Review: Scratch the surface and you’ll find something compelling

Guy Pearce’s eccentricities will be what is most remembered about a story that should be fascinating in its own right.

Guy Pearce as Han Van Meegeren in 'The Last Vermeer'.
(Image: © Tristar Pictures)

Our Verdict

Guy Pearce’s eccentricities will be what is most remembered about a story that should be fascinating in its own right.

For

  • 🎨Guy Pearce is absolutely magnetic.
  • 🎨Fascinating courtroom drama in the second half.

Against

  • 🎨Claes Bang has too much screentime and too little to work with as an actor.
  • 🎨The first half is a slog of unnecessary context.

The Last Vermeer is currently only available to watch in theaters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend checking it out at your local drive-in. If one isn’t available, please be sure to check out state and CDC guidelines before watching in an enclosed space.

Films, much like other forms of art, sometimes take time to appreciate, whether it’s upon revisitation to a piece or in discovering further dimension to a work as it washes over you the first time. The Last Vermeer, somewhat unintentionally, is an examination of that principle both as an evaluation of artistic merit and artist personae, and as a woefully uneven movie that fails to find its raison d’etre until its back half. Once it finally gets to the meat of its story, it’s an engaging and thought-provoking bit of melodramatic historical theater. You just have to be willing to sift through a lot of tedious distraction to get there.

In the aftermath of World War II, Jewish Dutch resistance fighter Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) is tasked with investigating art stolen by the Nazis and redistributing that art back to its previous owners and the Dutch people. One of these pieces is “Christ and the Adulteress,” a Baroque painting by Johannes Vermeer that Piller suspects may have ended up in Nazi hands through art dealer and failed painter Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce). Piller takes van Meegeren into custody, exchanging access to painting supplies and various other luxuries for information about the Nazis’ stolen art supply chain, all while the threat of a capital sentence looms over van Meegeren’s head as the extent of his involvement remains unclear.

The first half of the film makes for a slog, primarily because it pays disproportionate attention to Piller and his personal life. It’s easy to see how the filmmakers (and the historians who wrote the book upon which this film is based) find Piller’s background as a resistance fighter and his conflicted relationship with his non-Jewish wife to be compellingly informative of how his relationship with van Meegeren grows, but for the purposes of the story this film in particular is attempting to tell, it feels vestigial and largely beside the point. Piller, like many investigator protagonists before him, is much more interesting when other characters react to his influence, and this is best displayed through Pearce’s performance as van Meegeren.

Han van Meegeren is eccentric and magnetic, the personification of foppish self-indulgence, hedonistic nihilism, artistic pretention, and enigmatic allegiances to anyone but himself. Imagine Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow as an art expert, and you’ve drunkenly stumbled into the approximate ballpark. He’s a fun character to watch that leaves the film sorely lacking whenever he isn’t on screen, but the performance gradually strips away layers of the man to expose surprising humanity and even darker depths, a swirling mess of a man who is somehow kept consistent through Pearce’s sheer talent. He’s practically a caricature, but he’s one that you can believe actually existed.

The back half of the film hinges upon a reveal that would probably constitute a spoiler if you didn’t have the ability to simply Google Han van Meegeren’s name, so I won’t lay it out here, but the narrative transitions to a courtroom drama that repositions Piller as van Meegeren’s most staunch defender. What at first feels like a dull character study of Piller, intermittently illuminated by Pearce's hypnotic performance, transforms into a compelling examination of van Meegeren that sidelines all the contextual posturing that preceded it. The courtroom theatrics are good enough on their own that it leaves one wishing that the script had been retooled to emphasize the trial, cutting the fat of Piller’s pathos in favor of exploring van Meegeren in total. The introduction of Vicky Krieps as an assistant investigator is woefully underdeveloped for her acting abilities, which feels jarring when compared to Piller’s disproportionate development, but also better serves the procedural nature of the court case, making it difficult to protest too much.

It's all the more frustrating, then, that The Last Vermeer is a merely serviceable film that shows glimpses of tipping over into greatness. It’s never an outright boring experience, but the meandering route it takes to get to its most tantalizing destinations is too scenic for its own good, believing tangential dalliances are the equivalent of an interesting character arc for its ostensible protagonist. In a way, the film is a victim of its own successes, as Guy Pearce’s eccentricities will be what is most remembered about a story that should be fascinating in its own right.

The Last Vermeer opens in theaters on November 20, 2020.