The Last Vermeer is one of the most beautiful films from a visual standpoint that I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s obvious that the cinematographer attempted to capture the same artistic spirit as the film’s namesake, painting the screen with strong elements of light and shadow. Fortunately, the story elements and presentation are also wonderful to experience thanks to strong lead performances, engrossing writing, and authentic sets. It’s just a shame that the film wasn’t longer to explore the characters further.
This post-World War II drama is based on a true story about eccentric art dealer Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce). After a painting identified as a priceless masterpiece by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer is discovered in a Nazi treasure trove, Van Meegeren is accused of selling the work and being a traitor to his country. He’s interrogated by Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), who is not sufficiently convinced that Van Meegeren is guilty. As pressure mounts to hand Van Meegeren over to another agency that will almost certainly condemn him to the firing squad, Piller works to build a case that will give his flamboyant prisoner a fighting chance in court.
The Last Vermeer is a visual delight. The use of dark and light is both obvious and unobtrusive. At times, shots can feel unmotivated until the viewer realizes that the film is teaching the audience how to appreciate art. Fortunately, the script leaves out ham-fisted instructional dialog and lets the audience come to their own conclusions instead. So, when Piller emotes wordlessly in a doorway, backlit by bright morning sunlight, astute viewers will know that they’re watching a painting in motion.
The accompanying story will hold audiences’ interest, but it also feels compressed in the way that film adaptations of books often do. The plot encompasses several elements that don’t get enough screen time, including Piller’s task of rooting out traitors, ensuring the safety of his prisoner, and acting as an attorney during the courtroom drama of the third act. Add to that summary Piller’s history as part of the Dutch Resistance and how the war affected his family life, and it’s easy to feel like a lot of the story is missing.
What audiences end up with are glimpses of a larger work. Had the film run perhaps an hour longer, then characters and motivations might feel better supported. As it is, The Last Vermeer is a straightforward story without many surprises. It’s still an engrossing film, but the emotional investment could have been elicited stronger with a longer runtime.
Performances are overall good. Guy Pearce seems to have the firmest grasp on his character as he floats through his scenes insouciantly despite his character’s grim circumstances. The supporting cast are also memorable for the short time they’re on screen. Claes Bang is only serviceable, however, as he comes off rigid and stoic for most of the film.
The Last Vermeer is a movie crafted for artists in more ways than just the obvious. Van Meegeren, portrayed as an artist who failed to reach acclaim, blames his lack of success on art critics and other gatekeepers who torpedoed his career because he didn’t seek their permission to be successful. There’s a cynical truth to his words that are difficult to deny for any creative person who has tried to make a career out of their talent. Of all the directions that The Last Vermeer could have expanded, I wish this the film had devoted more time to this honest observation the most.