Review by Sean Boelman
There have been plenty of films made about Nazi art conspiracies, some more successful than others. Dan Friedkin’s directorial debut The Last Vermeer is yet another competent but forgettable entry to the genre, benefitting from solid performances but weighed down by a less-than-stellar script.
The movie follows a soldier investigating art stolen by the Nazis as he comes across an art dealer accused of collaborating with the enemy and becomes convinced of his innocence, setting out on a quest to save him from execution. It’s an intriguing premise, showing the promise of both a mystery and an ethical debate, but the script doesn’t deliver on this potential.
Instead, the narrative can be divided almost cleanly in two. The first half follows the protagonist as he probes the allegiances of the art dealer, trying to come to his own decision, and the second is a much more straightforward courtroom drama. The latter is substantially more entertaining, but the former is more original and thought-provoking.
The script is at its most successful when it questions the commercialization of art. Artists and scholars have long questioned the morality of profiting off of art, especially in a time of war. One thing that the film does very well is to keep the viewer, like the characters, in relative darkness to the truth, allowing the doubt to set in and create suspense.
More could have been done in developing the dynamic between the two main characters. Heading from the second to the third act, there is a sudden shift forward in the protagonist’s arc, only for his growth to stop at that point. This significant jump simply isn’t believable in terms of characterization.
Even though it is Claes Bang who takes the lead, and he turns in a solid performance, it is Guy Pearce who steals the show. Pearce’s performance is admirably wacky, adding some fun and energy into a movie that too often feels like a slow march to the gallows (both literally and figuratively). Vicky Krieps also has a supporting role, but is disappointingly underused.
For the most part, the film looks pretty good. It is shot in a surprisingly dynamic way, even when the third act gets confined to a courtroom. Despite a script that frequently can’t seem to identify what makes this story intriguing in the first place, Friedkin manages to craft some genuinely captivating moments, making the dull ones all the more frustrating.
The Last Vermeer has a good movie somewhere within it, but a tremendously uneven script keeps it from taking advantage of its crazy true story. Still, it’s worth watching, if only to see Guy Pearce ham it up as an exuberant art dealer.
The Last Vermeer opens in theaters on November 20.