I’ve often found in the past that war films take on a whole new level of drama and suspense if they are set away from the front-line battles and instead focus on what is happening behind the scenes. It is why for me films like Valkyrie and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas are far superior films to Pearl Harbor or even the sentimental favourite Saving Private Ryan.
Keeping on with that tradition now is The Last Vermeer, a film that gives its audience a glimpse into the weeks after World War II and a little art history along the way. Of course the hunt for the Nazi art treasure has already been explored in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, but even that all-star cast couldn’t captivate me the way that The Last Vermeer did.
Based on Jonathan Lopez’s book The Man Who Made Vermeers the film centres around Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang – The Square). During the war Piller was part of the Dutch Resistance and now with the battles over he reflects on what has happened to his Jewish counterparts and tries to come to terms with the fact that in her role as a Resistance spy his beautiful wife Johanna (Susannah Doyle – Injustice) was forced to literally bed the enemy.
Now Piller finds himself recruited by the Canadian Army and placed in charge of hunting down people who aided the Nazi Party. The result when caught is hastily conducted trial and then executed in the street. Aided by his trusted assistant Minna (Vicky Krieps – Phantom Thread) and ever-present muscle Esper Dekker (Roland Moller – Atomic Blonde), the latest person on Piller’s hit-list is failed artist turned art dealer the eccentric Han Van Meegeren (Guy Pearce – Memento).
On paper it appears to be an open and shut case against Van Meegeren, he sold one of the most expensive paintings ever sold to a high-rating Nazi official and the fact he often invited Nazis to his high-society parties seems to imply he was one of the Nazi’s money-men. But as he protests his innocence and Piller tries desperately to get evidence from him the case seems to be clouded by the persistence of determined investigator Alex De Klerks (August Diehl – A Hidden Life) who simply wants Van Meegeren in front of a firing squad as quickly as possible.
I found that there is a true beauty to this film. Director Dan Friedkin (Dunkirk) brilliantly shows the light and dark of war without pushing into the faces of his audience. From the bleakness that surrounds Piller and his life through to the opulent lifestyle of Van Meegeren who it appears never even seen a bullet during the war, Friedkin brings both worlds together in a way that reveals him to be an amazingly talented filmmaker.
While the plot at hand does play out like a CSI ‘did he do it’ there is no formulaic scenes or clichés to get in the way of what has to be one of the most intriguing stories to come out of World War II. The screenplay allows for each character to go on their own journey and you are never really sure if Van Meegeren is innocent or guilty until the screenwriting team play their final hand. Even the court-room scenes which would often bog down a film like this are entertaining and I found as an audience member they completely shrouded me in suspense.
The big surprise I found from this film is that there hasn’t been more said about the performances of the two leading men. Guy Pearce is brilliant as the over-the-top Van Meegeren and as I watched him on the screen I wondered why he hasn’t become a bigger name in Hollywood – his body of work certainly calls for it. Teamed here with Claes Bang the pair put on performances for the ages and both deserve to be recognised for their portrayals of two forgotten men of history.
The Last Vermeer is the kind of film that I watch in the cinema and then count down the days it takes for it to come to a streaming service so that I can tell all my friends to watch. Well acted and with a stunningly suspenseful screenplay this is a film that will stay with me for a long time to come.