Movie Review: Nazis, stolen art and the man who sold “The Last Vermeer”

It plays like a fable, but the bulk of this bizarre story of World War II, Nazi art thefts and those who helped with the stealing is true.

You can’t make this stuff up. Or in this case, you don’t need to.

Stuntman and producer Dan Friedkin, making his feature directing debut, renders this case of Han van Meergeren and Vermeer in broad strokes (sorry), struggling to turn what could have been a dark (or darkly comic) fable into a “ticking clock” thriller.

But the generally straightforward approach serves his cast well, and provides a rare tour de force for Guy Pearce, who is always good, especially when he has a role that requires a certain flamboyance.

Pearce is van Meegeren, an artist, art lover, art dealer and slippery swell laying low in his native Netherlands as if he’s expecting a shoe to drop.

Claes Bang (“The Square”) is a “Dutch Jew in a Canadian uniform,” a former tailor and jazz fan turned resistance fighter, now a Canadian officer trying to track down Nazi collaborators.

One of the key points of stress in this multi-handed script is that between those who “fled” Holland, to Britain, plotting a return to power after liberation, and those who stayed behind and fought, as Joseph Piller (Bang) did, or those who “did what we had to” in order to survive, like Pillar’s wife (Marie Bach Henson). She kept the company of German soldiers.

So did van Meegeren. Apparently. What Piller wants to find out if this insanely valuable painting by “The Master of Delft,” Jan (Johannes) Vermeer van Delft, which wound up in the collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, was stolen, and from whom.

Piller is Jewish, and those noting his passion for the case figure that the artwork was stolen “from Jews,” which they assume further motivates him. As the people jumping to this conclusion are non-Jewish, and under suspicion for collaboration with the Anti-Semitic enemy, you can see why he’d get his back up.

But his prisoner is a mixture of unctuous charm and white-haired menace. And even though the State Police are hunting for him as well, he’s not cooperating.

“I find that in life, as in art, it’s always best not to spoil the surprise.”

We sense we’re being set up for a game of cat and mouse, and we’re not wrong. When van Meegeren wonders about his own “redemption,” and perhaps the captain’s secret need for it as well, we wonder if that’s a parallel the script will play up. Not really.

Piller interrogates van Meegeren and those who knew him, with an old Resistance friend (Roland Møller) there to provide muscle and menace. A cocked pistol is quite the incentive. Eventually, they have to hide their prisoner from government officials who’d love for van Meergeren to carry his secrets to his grave.

And that’s when he starts bargaining — an internment with good light, canvas and oils, access to “my assistant,” who is also his lover and model (Olivia Grant).

Through monologues and flashbacks, the painter and art lover tells his story. Meanwhile, events outside are conspiring to bring this all to a head and this “traitor” to trial.

Public firing squads are a common sight. So yes, the stakes are high. What will be van Meergeren’s defense?

The period detail and immersion in the art of the Dutch Masters creates the color palette of “The Last Vermeer,” and set its tone.

And all of it — the strife in Pillar’s marriage, the government intrigues, literally chasing van Meergeren at one point — is but the canvas for Pearce to paint his portrait of the duality of man, the shared guilt of those who seemed to thrive under Nazi Occupation, a guilt Meergeren seems to not understand.

Pearce makes him ramrod-straight in posture and ever-the-epicurean about his tastes in art, and people and whisky. We can believe he dealt with the Nazis, and we can believe he figured he could outsmart them, you as we wonder if he’s outsmarting Pillar, or even himself. Even with a firing squad at stake, Pearce’s van Meergeren is slow to panic, reluctant to lower himself to ask for help.

What an interesting pigeon-hole Bang has um, painted himself into. He’s now made three films set in the world of art –“The Square,” “The Burnt Orange Heresy” and “The Last Vermeer.” Something about him says “at home in the world of art and its pretenses.” Perhaps he should have a word with his agent.

The cat-and-mouse stuff, the “discoveries,” aren’t the hardest plot points to detect, nor are the under-developed distractions Piller has thrown in front of him.

But the courtroom finale, eating up much of the third act, is a corker. And Pearce holds our focus, still or animated, chewing up a scene or so underplaying it he’s still the center of attention.

Like the Great Master he is, he knows how to grab the eye and hold its focus, with or without a menacing mustache.

MPAA Rating: R for some language, violence and nudity

Cast: Claes Bang, Olivia Grant, Vicky Krieps, Marie Bach Henson, Roland Møller and Guy Pearce

Credits: Directed by Dan Friedkin, script by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, James McGee, based on the book by Jonathan Lopez. A Sony TriStar release.

running time: 1:53

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