Piller’s task: to find out who sold Hermann Goering a painting by Johannes Vermeer called “Christ and the Adulteress” for the sum of 1.6 million guilders. If a Dutch national treasure was, perhaps, stolen and transferred to the enemy, that’s not good.
The trail leads to van Meegeren, but the painter — who seems to have made it through the war while cultivating a lavish lifestyle — professes innocence of the collaboration charge, while maintaining a cagey vagueness about why and how. (He also appears to have hobnobbed with Nazis, although he professes to despise them.) There are some suspenseful early scenes, as Piller maneuvers to hang onto his “big fish” after agents from the Dutch Ministry of Justice also get their hooks in van Meergren — whom they are ready to railroad — but this is a fairly cerebral thriller.
At least for the first two acts it is.
Capably filmed by billionaire producer turned director Dan Friedkin, making his feature debut, “Vermeer” chews on some decent food for thought: most notably the idea of moral ambiguity and the compromises one sometimes makes in wartime to survive. It’s only in the film’s final half-hour when “Vermeer” turns into a more conventional courtroom drama — one whose facts are unnecessarily juiced up for the screen by writers James McGee, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, loosely adapting Jonathan Lopez’s book “The Man Who Made Vermeers.”
The title alone of Lopez’s book gives away a substantial chunk of story here. Still, the details of “Vermeer’s” tale — in which Piller evolves from van Meegeren’s adversary to his chief advocate — are still worth hearing out, especially if you’re interested in art history and a narrative that gently probes such ideas as imitation and authorship.
Where did “Christ and the Adulteress” come from, when it was only authenticated in the 20th century as a canvas by Vermeer (whose known works number only 30 or so)? And what does it say about talent that a critically reviled, third-rate artist like van Meegeren might have painted it?
Those questions are worth asking, but they’re not the most provocative ones in “The Last Vermeer.” It’s the film’s exploration of the ethical bartering conducted by van Meegeren — not his expertise as a copyist or his skill as a swindler — that linger after the closing credits.
R. At area theaters. Contains some coarse language, violence and nudity. 118 minutes.