Review: ‘The Last Vermeer,’ starring Guy Pearce and Claes Bang

November 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Guy Pearce in “The Last Vermeer” (Photo by Jack English/TriStar Pictures)

“The Last Vermeer”

Directed by Dan Friedkin

Some language in Dutch with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Netherlands from 1945 to 1947, and based on true events, the dramatic film “The Last Vermeer” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A Dutch military captain is tasked with hunting down people who stole or illegally sold high-priced art to Nazis, and he unexpectedly believes in the innocence of one wealthy suspect.

Culture Audience: “The Last Vermeer” will appeal primarily to people who like traditionally made dramas that are set in Europe in the 1940s and that explore issues of war crimes, social classes and art.

Roland Møller, Guy Pearce and Claes Bang in “The Last Vermeer” (Photo by Jack English/TriStar Pictures)

The dramatic film “The Last Vermeer,” which is inspired by a true story, is set in post-World War II Holland during the years 1945 to 1947, but the structure of the movie is very much like an episode of the crime procedural TV series “Law & Order.” The first half of the movie is about the hunt for suspects and narrowing it down to the person who gets arrested, while the second half is about the legal procedure that culminates with the accused on trial. It’s not a movie that’s groundbreaking, but it’s elevated by the engaging performances of Guy Pearce and Claes Bang, as two men at the center of an art mystery who start out as enemies and end up becoming unexpected allies.

Directed by Dan Friedkin, “The Last Vermeer” is like comfort food to people who relish a retro movie that pays homage to the era in which it takes place. It’s set in a mid-20th century Holland that is still scarred and recovering from World War II, yet proudly clinging to its historical legacy as one of Europe’s most important cultural centers. Much like it is now, the Netherlands is viewed as a country willing to try progressive things while steeped in traditions that go back centuries.

James McGee, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby wrote the screenplay for “The Last Vermeer,” which is an adaptation of Jonathan Lopez’s 2008 biography “The Man Who Made Vermeeers,” about the life of Han van Meegeren. “The Last Vermeer” makes van Meegeren (played by Pearce) an adversary-turned-ally of the movie’s protagonist Captain Joseph Piller (played by Bang), who is given the responsibility of investigating and tracking down people who were responsible for stealing valuable art and/or selling them to Nazis. Joseph was a lieutenant who fought in the war, and he has a very clear sense of right and wrong, but he’s not above bending the rules if it means getting to the truth.

“The Last Vermeer” is the second movie released in 2020 in which Bang portrays someone at the center of a crime thriller involving fine art. He also starred in “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” which is a fictional story about a disgraced art critic (played by Bang) who tries to make a comeback by presenting himself as someone who has access to a painting by a legendary and reclusive artist. The idea of who gets to decide what is “valuable” art and how those perceptions can determine the price of art are also prominent themes in “The Last Vermeer.”

Both movies also explore issues of social classes and ask this question: Do rich people who spend spend millions on art deserve to be cheated if they are unscrupulous in their lives? It’s a moral and ethical dilemma that comes up later in the story of “The Last Vermeer,” whose “reveal” won’t be spoiled in this review if people don’t know the true story that inspired this movie. It’s enough to say that Han isn’t what he first appears to be at the beginning of the movie, and it’s why Joseph ends up taking his side.

Joseph’s investigation involves unraveling a complicated web of lies about how much art dealers, buyers and sellers knew when they made transactions that resulted in valuable art being owned by high-ranking Nazis. Joseph has a somewhat goofy sidekick named Esper Dekker (Roland Møller), who acts as someone who is ready to physically intimidate people when necessary. Joseph also happens to be Jewish, but for obvious reasons he doesn’t make that information known to a lot of people.

When Joseph enlists Esper’s help, he tells tells Esper: “I want to avoid the Ministry of Justice because they seem to have their own agenda. And that’s why I need you. I need someone I can trust.” An ambitious detective named Alex De Klerks (played by August Diehl) from the Ministry of Justice becomes one of Joseph’s main antagonists, because each man wants the credit and the glory for hunting down the most war criminals in this case. Alex thinks that Joseph is a lowly buffoon (he taunts Joseph for having a former career as a tailor), while Joseph thinks that Alex is a corrupt cop.

Meanwhile, there’s another reason why Joseph is throwing so much of his time and energy into this investigation: His marriage is falling apart, and the investigation is an excuse to spend time away from his wife Leez (played by Marie Bach Hansen), who is also emotionally distant from Joseph. Leez did spy work for the Allied Forces by working as a secretary of a high-ranking Nazi. This espionage work and Joseph spending time away from home because of the war took a toll on their marriage.

Joseph and Leez have a son named Finn (played by Tom Mulheron), who’s about 5 or 6 years old when this story first takes place. But Joseph’s love for his son isn’t enough to want him to spend more time at home. The investigation consumes Joseph to the point where it becomes the top priority in his life.

There are several other people who are part of the investigation, including Joseph’s trustworthy administrative assistant Minna Holmberg (played by Vicky Krieps), who’s a smart, widowed woman in her 20s. (Her husband died in the war.) And when there’s an attractive young assistant who admires her older married boss who’s on the verge of breaking up with his wife, you can pretty much guess what will happen in a movie like this one. It’s completely cliché, but there are many real-life situations that play out exactly like it does in this movie.

Joseph weeds through several people before he gets to what he thinks is the “big fish” in this underground art conspiracy. Han has been named as the the mastermind behind selling extremely valuable Johannes Vermeer paintings to Nazis from 1936 to 1942. The sales of these paintings, plus other art dealings, resulted in Han becoming a very wealthy man. But these art sales have also branded him as a Nazi conspirator and are war crimes that are punishable by death.

During the course of the investigation, Joseph finds out that Han is a flamboyant and charismatic art dealer who has lived a decadent life of hosting lavish, drug-and-alcohol-fueled parties, where high-ranking Nazis were frequent guests. Han also has a free-spirited lover named Cootje Henning (played by Olivia Grant), who is married and not very discreet about the affair. She provides some important information to Joseph, which leads to him discovering some of Han’s secrets.

As a result of his debauched lifestyle and numerous infidelities, Han has gotten divorced from his ex-wife Johana (played by Susannah Doyle), and has curiously let her have almost all of his money and numerous properties in the divorce. By the time that Joseph gets around to questioning Han, this already disgraced art dealer is on his way to being an exile from high society since he’s no longer wealthy and his association with Nazis has made him a pariah.

The more that Joseph uncovers, the more he finds that Han has layers of secrets in his life. Han’s loyalties and motivations aren’t what they initially seem to be. Han started out as a struggling artist but gave up his artist dreams when his first gallery showings were critical and commercial flops. It no doubt fueled his motivation to find wealth and respect in the art world in another way, which was to become an art dealer.

Han’s dealings with Nazis might come as a huge cost to his life. But Joseph becomes convinced that Han is not guilty of what he’s been accused of in court, and Joseph becomes one of Han’s biggest defenders when Han is put on trial. There are some hijinks in the movie that involve Joseph and Esper playing a cat-and-mouse game with Detective De Klerks. A jailbreak scene is somewhat amusing, if not highly dramatized.

However, the real gist of the story comes down to the trial and what happens as the case is laid out and there are twists and turns to the story. As Joseph, Bang is every inch the crusading hero that he’s supposed to be in the movie. He does a very good job in the role, but the character is very transparent and easy to predict.

Pearce’s performance as Han is really the standout in “The Last Vermeer.” Whether or not viewers know what happened in real life with the trial’s outcome, people will be kept guessing over whether or not Han is a hero or a villain. Just like a chess master, Han seems to be steps ahead of everyone else, in terms of things he knows that other people don’t and what he plans for his “end game.”

The movie’s art direction and costume design are on point (people who love European architecture and lavish interior designs will appreciate this film’s attention to detail), but “The Last Vermeer” works best because of the performances of the main actors. Friedkin’s direction is solid, but people with short attention spans might get frustrated during the first third of the movie, which introduces a jumble of characters who might or might not be suspects. “The Last Vermeer” is not an essential movie about post-World War II Europe, but for art aficionados, it’s worth checking out for a dramatic retelling of a very intriguing real-life art mystery.

TriStar Pictures released “The Last Vermeer” in U.S. cinemas on November 20, 2020.