Reviewing any film released exclusively in theaters these days is something of a loaded assignment (doubly so in Boston, where the nearest drive-in is 40 minutes away and almost never gets any of the new releases currently in multiplexes). As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, it’s foolish to recommend people go to non-drive-in theaters for the time being. The job of the critic, then, is less to tell you what to go see and more to let you know what you’re missing out on.
You’re not missing out on much with “The Last Vermeer,” which Sony Pictures Classics is putting into nationwide theatrical release Nov. 20.
Based on the book “The Man Who Made Vermeers” by Jonathan Lopez and brought to the screen by first-time director Dan Friedkin and screenwriters John Orloff, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, “The Last Vermeer” tells the true story of art forger Han van Meegeren. Van Meegeren is famous for selling a forgery of Vermeer’s “Christ with Adulteress” to Hermann Goring for millions. Suspected of being a Nazi collaborator, he became something of a folk hero in the Netherlands upon revealing he was, in fact, swindling the Nazis.
Van Meegeren is a compelling character, raising philosophical questions about art and moral ones about the ethics of doing business with fascists. Guy Pierce clearly had fun playing this morally ambiguous eccentric. This story could have worked great as a more straightforward character study. The problem is it instead sets itself up as a mystery that takes way too long to get to the answers that actually make the whole thing interesting.
Claes Bang (Netflix’s “Dracula”) is solid in the role of Joseph Piller, the Jewish Resistance fighter who arrests and interrogates van Meegeren, but despite the strength of the actors, these interrogations lack much in the way of dramatic spark. When van Meegeren explains parts of his life story to Piller, it feels like this would be much more compelling if we just saw his life story rather than had it told to us.
The film runs almost two hours but could probably stand to lose a quarter of that runtime. It doesn’t truly get interesting until the big courtroom reveals toward the end. It’s a technically well-produced film, but an extremely staid one. Even if theaters were 100% safe, this wouldn’t be worth the ticket price.