I still don’t know anything about art. Oh, I’ve been to a few famous museums, seen some famous paintings, and can name some famous artists if a clue about them comes up on “Jeopardy!” But I can’t explain why one piece of art is better than another, or how to assess its worth.
Given that, you’d think a film described as an “art thriller” wouldn’t be up my alley, but I really enjoyed “The Last Vermeer” (which is not to be confused with “Tim’s Vermeer,” a 2014 documentary produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller).
The movie takes place in the Netherlands, a few months after the end of World War II. The authorities are rounding up anyone who sympathized with the Nazis and/or made money by doing business with them. Offenders are killed by firing squads in the middle of the street.
One of the investigators is Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Jewish former member of The Resistance. He has his eye on Han Van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), a not-very-well-thought-of artist who seems to have survived the war by becoming richer. A major source of that wealth is thought to be “Christ and the Adultress,” a recently found piece that was not one of Vermeer’s original 34 paintings from the 17th century. Piller believes that the piece had been stolen from a Jewish family and acquired by Van Meegeren, who then sold it to the high-ranking Nazi Hermann Goering, founder of the Gestapo, for 1.6 million guilders.
What makes “The Last Vermeer” work is there are no chase scenes, extended fist fights, or gunplay. Instead, there’s a battle of wits between Piller and Van Meegeren, who insists he’s not guilty of the crime with which he is charged. Piller, acting on behalf of the Allied provisional government, also has to put off agents from the Dutch Ministry Of Justice, who have their own ideas about what to do with Van Meegeren.
Pearce — who has had an up-and-down career since bursting onto the scene two decades ago in “LA Confidential” and “Memento” — is the standout in the cast, because he has the showiest role. As Van Meegeren, he has just the right touch of eccentricity, arrogance, and moxie to stay alive long enough to make his case in court. Bang, who appeared in 2018’s “The Girl In The Spider’s Web” and this year’s “Burnt Orange Heresy” (another art thriller, which I reviewed here), plays Piller as a stoic, determined officer, even as he recognizes that things are not as they appear. It’s his unraveling of the mystery that keeps the plot taut and captivating.
If you’re going to see “The Last Vermeer,” do yourself a favor — don’t watch the trailers or read other reviews, which will spoil the proceedings for you. Instead, dive right in and enjoy.
I give “The Last Vermeer” an 8 out of 10. It opens in theaters today.