Reviewing movies during an ever-worsening pandemic can feel a bit hazardous. That partly comes down to a weird awards show rule: in order for a movie to qualify for the Oscars, it has to have at least a one-week theatrical run in Los Angeles, which excludes anything that goes straight to streaming. The Academy tweaked this rule for the COVID age, but only slightly—now, a streaming movie can qualify for the Oscars if it has a one-week theatrical run planned. That’s why The Last Vermeer, a movie built from the ground up to please the average Oscar voter (old, white, consumed by an obsession with WWII), is releasing in theaters despite the danger in the air.
There’s an easy solution to this issue, though: don’t see The Last Vermeer in theaters. Even if you’re a huge fan of the infamous art forger at the center of the movie’s story, you shouldn’t see it in theaters. You probably shouldn’t watch it at home either, but that has less to do with the coronavirus and more to do with using your time wisely.
Adapted from Jonathan Lopez’ novel The Man Who Made Vermeers, The Last Vermeer chronicles the tale of Han van Meegeren, an artist who faced capital punishment in the post-WWII Netherlands for selling a priceless Vermeer painting to Hermann Göring, Nazi war criminal and architect of the Gestapo. If you’re unfamiliar with any of those names or terms, The Last Vermeer has you covered: it assumes the viewer hasn’t heard of Meegeren or Göring, or of Johannes Vermeer, or of European anti-fascist movements following the war, or of resistance activities during the war, or of the implications of WWII in general, and it spends plenty of time explaining those things to you, the historically illiterate philistine that you are.
Therein lies the problem of The Last Vermeer’s first hour. The movie wants to expound its historical context with the rigor of a textbook but doesn’t want to slow down to do it, and so it siphons decades of exposition into wherever the dialogue has room. Getting a story’s background out of the way through title cards, narration, or news broadcast (a popular choice these days) may not be terribly exciting, but The Last Vermeer’s alternative is worse. Characters incessantly explain their past while the plot pushes them into the future, a cross-eyed approach that looks clearly in neither direction. It’s this constant fixation on fact dispensation that makes a biopic like Michael Almereyda’s Tesla, for all its indifference to historical accuracy, a more historically edifying movie. Cinema need not be a visual textbook—the impression of a person or event can teach us more than a cavalcade of small, sequential, technically accurate factoids.
With exposition taking up the dialogue that could’ve been used for more personal character work, the things that The Last Vermeer does well merely become hollow scaffolding. The score, production design, cinematography, and lighting are as smooth as any movie made in Hollywood’s non-fiction house style, but without a character conflict to invest in, it’s a strangely empty shell— like an instrumental version of a song you loved for the lyrics. The music swells and the story builds, and you can’t help but think that this would feel dramatic if you cared about anyone involved.
The cast does their best with the material and mostly succeeds—it’s great to see Vicky Krieps getting work, even if she’s undervalued—and the second half of the movie, after a jump in time, puts the brakes on the elaboration of historical details. But these graces aren’t The Last Vermeer’s salvation. They’re vestiges of what this movie could’ve been. Perhaps if it weren’t directed by a trust-fund billionaire CEO who owns Toyota’s leading parts distributor and Italy’s biggest football club, The Last Vermeer could’ve achieved something akin to the artistic value for which van Meegeren strove. Instead, it hews closer to van Meegeren’s actual work: expensive facsimile.