Some real-life stories seem made for the movies yet resist being bent into cinematic shape, and “The Last Vermeer” is one. A sweeping and serious-minded World War II-era drama arriving in theaters this week, it’s handsomely filmed, well-acted, and hollower than it wants to be, with a mid-movie revelation that rearranges the moral stakes in ways that dampen the telling. That makes it tough for a reviewer to write about without spoiling things and hard for an audience to watch with full emotional involvement.
Set in Amsterdam in the months after the Third Reich has been beaten, “The Last Vermeer” focuses on Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang of “The Square” and “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” surprisingly sympathetic here and arguably miscast), a former Dutch Resistance fighter now in Canadian uniform and charged by the Allies with recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis. A previously unknown Vermeer found among Goering’s possessions leads Piller to the man who may have sold it to him, a flamboyantly dissolute painter and society gadfly named Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce).
From whom did van Meegeren get the painting? Who’s he protecting? These questions drive the first half of “The Last Vermeer,” as Piller enlists the help of a Resistance friend (Roland Møller), fights interference from a sneering Ministry of Justice factotum (August Diehl), and is brought clues by an adoring assistant (Vicky Krieps, the find of “Phantom Thread,” as criminally underused by the film as her character is by the hero).
On top of this, Piller has a domestic quandary: a wife (Marie Bach Hansen) who in spying on the Nazis during the war may have become too close to her work. All these characters and developments make for a very busy movie until a major figure turns out to be not who or what we think, which has the unfortunate effect of seizing up the gears while the audience readjusts. It helps that the final third of “The Last Vermeer” settles into a suspenseful courtroom drama on which hang notions of art, value, national culture, and personal ethics. Still, the overall impact has been blunted.
By far the most enjoyable aspect of the film is Pearce’s overripe performances as van Meegeren, with an assist from Olivia Grant, acidly sensual as the painter’s model/mistress. Part of the fun is in the hair and make-up, with the actor lording over his scenes under waxed-up eyebrows and a floppy silver mane. But Pearce also has the luck to be playing the one person here whose motives remain defiantly his own. (You can Google the real story easily enough, but only if you want the movie’s secrets given away.) Whether Han van Meegeren’s selfishness is enlightened or not becomes the prime mystery of “The Last Vermeer.” Thankfully, it also provides a gifted actor with enough ham to dine out on for a month.
THE LAST VERMEER
Directed by Dan Friedkin. Written by James McGee, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby, based on a book by Jonathan Lopez. Starring Claes Bang, Guy Pearce, Vicky Krieps. At Boston Common, suburbs. 117 minutes. R (language, violence, nudity).