‘The Last Vermeer,’ Telluride/Toronto Film Festivals Review

(L to R): Guy Pearce, Claes Bang in ‘The Last Vermeer’ (courtesy of the film)

The Last Vermeer which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival as Lyrebird was renamed to refocus upon the genius Dutch Baroque Period painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) who is one of the national treasures of The Netherlands. Vermeer specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle class life, exemplified in his renowned Girl With the Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid. As the film elucidates Vermeer used unique, expensive pigments and was most concerned about the masterful use of light like the other great painters of the Dutch Golden Age, i.e. Rembrandt, Frans Hals.

Vermeer worked slowly and produced relatively few paintings which brought him moderate success. When confronted with financial difficulties during his country’s two wars, he went into debt, which his wife and children had to recover from after he died. For two centuries Vermeer fell into obscurity until his discovery in the 19th century which grew until his paintings became valuable. His works’ value is what intrigued Hermann Goering enough to purchase a Vermeer from dealer Han van Meergren for the highest price yielded by the Nazis for confiscated and stolen works of art during WW II.

Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps in ‘The Last Vermeer’ (courtesy of the film)

The film starring Guy Pearce, Claes Bang and Vicky Krieps is based on the book The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez. Directed by Dan Friedkin who has numerous producing credits of intriguing films (The Square, Hot Summer Nights, All the Money in the World, {2017} Ben is Back {2018)} to name a few) the film was scripted by James McGee (Jon Orloff), Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and is about the amazing true story of the recovery of a Vermeer that was counted among Nazi loot after the fall of Hitler.

The film begins in the aftermath of the bombing of Rotterdam and takes place in Amsterdam when allied troops helped restore order to the governments that had been upended by the Nazis. Part of the process of restoring order was to divine the Nazi collaborators and punish them. At the time Canadians were in charge after which the Dutch government would assume control and command. As the film opens we note a Dutch Nazi collaborator is being summarily executed in the public square as a crowd cheers.

Claes Bang in ‘The Last Vermeer’ (courtesy of the film)

In this environment there are friends and foes and it remains unclear the extent to which one should judge another’s way to survive under horrific oppression and slaughter, such as the Nazi occupiers delivered to the Dutch people. In the instance of Nazi looted art, recovery takes take precedence and those caught in the crosshairs of vengeance receive little mercy from others who may have collaborated on a higher, more obscure level in the occupied government who look to hold the reigns of power.

Claes Bang portrays Captain Joseph Piller, a Canadian Jew tasked to locate and return a Vermeer purchased by Hermann Goering and afterward, to seek justice for the original theft of the art work. Along with his wife who compromised her fidelity to gain information, Piller was in the resistance, and if he was caught as a Jew, it would have gone badly for him. Indeed, Piller and his wife courageously negotiated an opaque moral tightrope to overthrow their Nazi enemies, a detail which is inferred and not explored with any depth.

Guy Pearce in ‘The Last Vermeer’ (courtesy of the film)

The Vermeer was one of thousands of Nazi stolen artworks, documents and valuables that were hidden when the allies came through (see the film The Monuments Men {2014}). To this day there are paintings that have been recovered, but they cannot be matched to their former owners. In some instances, museums and art galleries purchased the works on the QT to keep the historic, priceless pieces in the country of origin, rather than work to locate the family of the original owners (see the film Woman in Gold {2015}).

Captain Piller is not the only one looking to recover stolen works from the Nazis, jail or execute collaborators after restoring the works to their original owners. This is a high stakes conflict to exact justice. On the one side are the allies. On the other is the Dutch government has its own processes of dealing with collaborators, including letting some go free depending upon the quid pro quos to be made.

Guy Pearce in ‘The Last Vermeer’ (courtesy of the film)

Piller must discover the truth of a mystery about the Vermeer before the compromised Dutch Ministry of Justice, represented by Alex De Klerks (August Diehl) regains full jurisdiction over the matter. Time is running out for Piller to “get the job done,” before the Dutch can pardon, get payoffs from the collaborators, or look the other way and allow the Nazis and collaborators to depart or go underground until the culture forgets and moves on.

Guy Pearce finely portrays the wild and ostentatious Han van Meergren who Piller discovers was in possession of the Vermeer before it ended up in the hands of Goering. Piller gains the trust of van Meergren and vice-versa. Together they pull apart whether or not as an art dealer van Meergren collaborated with the Nazis and betrayed the Dutch people or was in fact like Piller and his wife, part of the resistance and on the side of the Allies.

Guy Pearce in ‘The Last Vermeer (courtesy of the film)

In the process of revealing this mystery the film goes into the type of paints Vermeer used as well as his technique. It further unveils the flamboyant identity of van Meergren and through him it excoriates the art world for its tenuous and corrupt practices to gain illicit and unconscionable profits off the backs of artists who do the work and beg to be exploited for the sake of recognition and a few coins to help them live.

The ironies abound in The Last Vermeer. The high points occur every time Guy Pearce is onscreen and taking charge of the mysterious which we attempt to understand. When it is revealed in the courtroom when the judge, defense, jury and art expert examine van Meegren’s role in the world of the Nazis, the high jinx are quickly and shockingly revealed in an exuberant twist. That Piller and his staff assist van Meegren in his revelatory exploit is all the more delicious.

Guy Pearce in ‘The Last Vermeer’ (courtesy of the film)

Though the film has slow moving parts related to the exposition and falters in not revealing the backstory of Piller and his wife, when the conflict comes to the fore, it takes off into a fascinating account of a true story. The cinematic elements, costumes, hairstyles, and the recreation of historical setting is excellent.

There is no spoiler alert here. You will just have to see the film which will be released 20 November 2020.

About caroleditosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is an Entertainment Journalist, novelist, poet and playwright. Writing is my life. When I don't write I am desolate. Carole Di Tosti has over 1800 articles, reviews, sonnets and other online writings. Carole Di Tosti writes for Blogcritics.com, Theater Pizzazz and other New York theater websites. Carole Di Tost free-lanced for VERVE and wrote for Technorati for 2 years. Some of the articles are archived. Carole Di Tosti covers premiere film festivals in the NY area:: Tribeca FF, NYFF, DOC NYC, Hamptons IFF, NYJewish FF, Athena FF. She also covers SXSW film. Carole Di Tosti's novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Power,' is being released in November-December. Her two-act plays 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics' in the process of being submitted for representation and production.

Posted on November 3, 2020, in Film Festival Screenings, Film News, Film Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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