Set just after World War II, the story involves Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Jewish member of the Dutch Resistance who spent the war years working underground. Now, he works with the Allied reconstruction corps, following the money trail from big ticket art sales that may have funded espionage.
His investigation introduces him to artist Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), a painter and art dealer who admits making millions of dollars selling art to the Nazis. Of particular interest is “Christ and the Adulteress,” a Johannes Vermeer masterpiece he sold to Hermann Göring for 1.6 million guilder. “Which proves that pigs have good taste or too much money,” van Meegeren sxays.
The Netherland’s government see him as a war criminal. “He’s an honorary Nazi,” says one bureaucrats. “Let him swing with the rest of them.” But there’s a twist; van Meegeren claims the paintings were fakes, forgeries he painted to defraud the Nazis. “I believe every Fascist deserves to be swindled,” van Meegeren says. An ensuing court case puts not only van Meegeren on trial for collaborating with the enemy during war, but also the very idea of what makes good art great.
“The Last Vermeer” is a handsome, deliberately paced historical drama given life by a flamboyant performance from Pearce. He’s a bon vivant, quick with a line and a theatrical character who given to histrionic outbursts. “I am an artist,” says van Meegeren, “not a Nazi spy.” Pearce is clearly having fun—more so than anyone else in the film—but he’s reigned in just enough to prevent van Meegeren from becoming a caricature. It’s the spark that keeps our interest in an otherwise nicely made but occasionally lethargic movie.
Most interesting are the questions van Meegeren’s forgeries ask. If they are good enough to fool the experts and please the eye, why can’t they be considered on their own merits? Was the painter, who is based on a real artist who is considered the greatest forger of all time, touched by genius or simply an opportunist who wasted his talents to bilk the Nazis? The film stops shy of providing answers but provides food for thought.