This is a more or less true story about how the most successful art forger of all time became a national hero to the Dutch. He is Han Van Meegeren, a flamboyant, temperamental artist and bon vivant who turned to charlatanism and forgery when critics rubbished his first solo exhibition in 1917. He’s played here with wonderful flair by Guy Pearce, who proves once again he’s not just a pretty-boy graduate of Aussie soaps.
The story starts in Holland at the end of World War II when the allies found what looks like a genuine Vermeer among thousands of art treasures plundered by the Nazis. It’s called Christ and The Adulteress and it was found in Hermann Goering’s personal underground stash, so the hunt is on to find out how he got it and to punish whoever gave it to him. The stakes are high: firing squads are shooting collaborators in the street.
The mission is given to Dutch resistance leader Captain Joseph Piller, now working for the allied administration. He’s played by Danish actor Claes Bang, who seems to be making a career out of films about art. I last saw him in The Burnt Orange Heresy, but he was also in that strange arty thing The Square, which was produced by billionaire Dan Friedkin, now having his first go as a director with The Last Vermeer.
Piller quickly tracks down Van Meegeren, but from here the story departs from the truth before ending up with Van Meegeren’s real-life trial for treason for selling national treasures to the Nazis. Friedkin invents the rather implausible scenario that Piller has to hide this vain, enigmatic genius away from vengeful Dutch authorities who seem to want him shot immediately. Van Meegeren demands to be plied with fine food and whiskey while he paints in his secret studio, although it’s not clear what he’s up to as he hasn’t exactly admitted that Christ and the Adulteress is his own work.
It seems to me the only reason Friedkin invented this scenario is so that he can put in some exciting escape and chase scenes when the Dutch authorities finally catch up with Van Meegeren. He also invents a somewhat doleful love story for Piller, which only slows the storytelling down until we arrive at the 1945 treason trial.
The film’s ending and the real story do accord, but in reality Van Meegeren’s defence all along was that the supposed Old Masters he sold to the Nazis were his own forgeries and therefore worthless. The Dutch court gave him every opportunity to defend himself, letting him demonstrate his forgery techniques to the jury and at one stage setting him up in a house where, to everyone’s astonishment, he painted a well-known Vermeer – Jesus and the Doctors – in a matter of weeks.
In the end – spoiler alert! – Van Meegeren was convicted not of treason but of forgery, and as the man who had swindled Göering he became an instant folk hero to the Dutch people. This much is depicted in the movie, but you wonder why Friedkin didn’t make more of the theme suggested by Van Meegeren himself early on: why some artworks are worth millions and identical ones only a few hundred dollars. But having raised this perennially interesting question, Friedkin abandons it in favour of action and love scenes, when he could have enriched this engrossing true story with some salient points about the value and meaning of art.
Fun fact: I’d always thought Guy Pearce was one of OUR national treasures, but googling reveals he isn’t a native-born Aussie, dammit. He was born in England to a Kiwi father and came to Australia at the age of 3. He was brought up in Geelong and still barracks for that footy team.