Joseph (Joop) Piller was a hero of the Dutch resistance, who would eventually be awarded America’s WWII-era Medal of Freedom. Han Van Meegeren (HVM) was not. Ironically, the failed artist-turned dealer of ill-repute would have to prove a lesser guilt when accused of collaboration. To do so, he needed the help of Piller, the investigator who initially pursues him in Dan Friedkin’s historically-based The Last Vermeer, which opens tomorrow nationwide.
The war has been over long enough for most of the Dutch to feel it is time to resume “normal” life. Piller still works for the provisional Allied command rather than the Dutch government, but the writing is on the wall. HVM will likely be his final case. The artist-dealer admits he joined the National Socialist Party for business purposes, but denies selling any of the Netherlands’ national treasures to the enemy. Unfortunately, the bill of sale for a hitherto unknown Vermeer suggests otherwise.
As he digs into the case, Piller struggles with the legacy of the war. His relationship with his wife is decidedly strained. Being Jewish, Piller had to go underground, while his wife survived doing clerical work for the occupying Germans, quickly becoming the boss’s mistress. She also became Piller’s best source, so he knew all about it.
Accused of collaboration by the Dutch authorities, HVM offers a novel defense and it will be Piller (now a private citizen) who argues the case on his behalf. This wild tale of art and deception, adapted from Jonathan Lopez’s nonfiction The Man Who Made Vermeers, might sound familiar to some, especially if they saw Austin Pendleton portray HVM Off-Broadway in Another Vermeer. Yet, the film and the play offer radically different takes on the artistic rogue, while generally agreeing he was a morally ambiguous and bitterly resented the proper art world’s snobby rejection of his talents.
Guy Pearce is grandly arrogant and flamboyant as HVM. His petty, prickly flaws are manifest, but he is never boring. It is hard to love him, but you can easily see why he was invited to parties. On the other hand, Claes Bang broods with unusual charisma as Piller, quietly expressing a sense of how deeply conflicted and tortured the war left him. Bang offers a rare example of a sensitive yet decidedly strong and masculine performance (like vintage Harrison Ford).
Last Vermeer is a two-man show for Pearce and Bang. Admittedly, the role of Minna Holmberg, Piller’s assistant and romantic temptation (played by Vicky Krieps) is nothing to write home about. However, Roland Møller plays Esper Dekker, Piller’s resistance comrade, with impressive grit and swagger. Likewise, Karl Johnson adds seasoned charm as Bernard Bakker, HVM’s lawyer of record (who happily defers to Piller).
The Last Vermeer is old-fashioned, in a solid, appealing way. Clearly, Friedkin found the story and its principle character fascinating, because it is reflected on screen. He capitalizes on all the inherent intrigue of HVM’s story, while thoughtfully contemplating the nature of art (but without pretension). There are some big themes here, but it is worth emphasizing it is still quite an entertaining watch. Highly recommended, The Last Vermeer opens tomorrow (11/20) in cities where theaters are allowed to open, including the AMC Newport.