What will the moviegoing public make of a film called “Lyrebird” (since retitled as “The Last Vermeer” for theatrical release)? Oblique but apt, that title refers to an ostentatious Australian bird capable of mimicking the calls of countless other species — the relevance of which may not be immediately apparent to those intrigued by the true, post-World War II story of a notorious Dutch art dealer accused of selling a priceless cultural treasure to Nazi Reich Marshal Hermann Göring.
After being arrested and tried for collaborating with the enemy, Han van Meegeren mounted a most unconventional defense: He claimed that the artwork in question, “The Supper at Emmaus,” was not in fact a Johannes Vermeer masterpiece but a masterful forgery, painted by none other than himself. While the truth is considerably more complicated, van Meegeren’s story reduces neatly to the kind of handsome, upscale night-out offering that still draws sophisticated older audiences to art houses — catnip for those who made “Woman in Gold” a success, and a solid choice of material for this respectable English-language directorial debut by learned-from-the-pros producer Dan Friedkin (“All the Money in the World,” “The Mule”).
Add gifted Australian chameleon Guy Pearce to the picture, and the odd title for this engaging tale of artful imitation starts to make sense. Transforming himself into a flamboyant self-made dandy — a show-offy Jack Sparrow-like character with waxed eyebrows and a staggering blood alcohol level who would’ve fit right in with Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” two decades earlier — Pearce plays the charming (con) artist, who survived the war selling knock-offs to Nazis: a case where art imitates life, even as life imitates art.
That “Lyrebird,” which was directed by a virtual amateur, resembles classic studio pictures of the period in which it’s set may as well be the cherry on top (think “The Monuments Men,” versus the more literally retro-styled “The Good German”). A billionaire car dealer who first appeared on the Hollywood scene a few years ago, producer-turned-helmer Friedkin comes to the project as a partner in Imperative Entertainment, which backed Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” — another art-themed movie, brilliant but far less crowd-pleasing in its approach — and a handful of other impressive titles. (Exec producing a Palme d’Or winner ain’t a bad way to start in Hollywood.)
If “The Square” revealed Danish actor Claes Bang to be a tall, elegant super-talent, Friedkin is one of the first to capitalize on the actor’s potential, casting him as the audience’s proxy, Capt. Joseph Piller, “a Dutch Jew in a Canadian uniform.” The script, co-written by James McGee and “Iron Man” duo Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, has a tendency to articulate key facts (like that one) via awkwardly expository dialogue wherein characters begin their lines, “As you know …,” before spoon-feeding valuable context for the story that follows.
This isn’t the kind of storytelling that flatters the audience’s intelligence, and yet, spelling things out ensures that viewers who don’t like to work too hard can follow along easily and focus on the film’s other pleasures — namely, Pearce’s performance and the twisty case of the missing “Vermeer.” Working on behalf of the Allied provisional government to restore the Netherlands’ cultural heritage, Piller is on-site when the painting is recovered from an Austrian salt mine in the opening scene, and he proceeds to take the case a little too personally.
“I am sensing that perhaps it is you who needs redemption,” van Meegeren tells Piller during his initial interrogation, demonstrating another example of the script’s tendency for the over-literal. The explanation comes soon enough, and isn’t nearly as interesting as it sounds: While Piller fled Europe during the war, his put-upon wife (Marie Bach Hansen) was a guest at van Meegeren’s swinging parties, where resourceful Dutch citizens did whatever they felt necessary to survive.
Compelling suave and self-destructive in “The Square,” Bang comes across here as mopey and emasculated, a towering giant in ill-fitting trousers, and frequently the least interesting character in any given room — upstaged even by his lead-headed buffoon of an assistant (Roland Møller), so easily distracted by nude paintings and hooch. A romantic subplot involving Piller and his able young aide (Vicky Krieps) feels ill-advised, inadvertently suggesting the officer is no better than the libertine van Meegeren, who shags his own assistant-cum-muse (Olivia Grant).
While Piller and his prisoner play coy mind games for a while, a rival government official (August Diehl, playing a heavily accented caricature) fumes cartoonishly on the sidelines, determined to make an example of van Meegeren — preferably by firing squad. While under Piller’s rather loose supervision, van Meegeren begins work on a painting he plans to use as his legal defense, until the authorities burst in and re-arrest him, at which point Piller goes off, sulks for a bit, and then decides to defend him in court.
The last third of “Lyrebird” concerns the ensuing legal battle, of which actual footage can be found on YouTube revealing a courtroom lined with van Meegeren’s impostor “Vermeers.” The real van Meegeren looks nothing like Pearce, but that hardly matters: The actor is the zesty stroke of color in this otherwise drab canvas. While the palette may be composed of olive greens and dull browns, this once notorious, now nearly forgotten story easily captures and holds our interest, and Friedkin’s smooth and unostentatious direction never gets in the way of the material.
For some reason, the screenplay focuses on the fact that van Meegeren swindled Göring out of money, when in fact, he claimed to have swapped the fake Vermeer for more than 100 Dutch paintings that Göring had confiscated — trading a forged national treasure for a precious trove of the real things, which would have made a better defense. “Lyrebird” also tries to make the trial more dramatic by inventing a “gotcha” moment in court, when in fact, the Dutch judges gave van Meegeren a month to go off and paint a fresh forgery. Art critics had derailed his career, but now he has fooled them all. In retrospect, van Meegeren made for a most unconventional kind of war hero, and all these years later, this trickster artist has finally earned his own portrait.