So many films are based on true stories. Most of the time, that hardly matters since the screenplays wind up being very far from the real-life events. Often, what viewers cherish over strict retellings of history are entertaining stories which feature colorful characters.
Two films from the past year or two that are loose retellings of real life are The Last Vermeer and King of Thieves.
The Last Vermeer, set in Amsterdam, is a movie released in November 2020, that takes place at the end of World War II. The plot centers on a presumably priceless painting of Christ and the Adulteress by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer which was purchased from an unknown source by Hitler’s sidekick, Hermann Goering, who recently had been imprisoned as a war criminal. Perhaps it was nicked from a wealthy Jewish household. Perhaps it was held by a museum, and the Nazis absconded with it. Whatever its backstory, Captain Joseph Piller of the Allied Provisional Government team, played by Danish actor Claes Bang, is attempting to return this work of art to its rightful owner.
In doing so he seeks the help of a quirky character, an artist and art dealer named Han Van Meegeren, played with zest and creativity by Guy Pearce. Van Meegeren is a slick fellow, a trickster who has managed to enjoy the best champagne and caviar throughout the war years. Together, these two men become unlikely partners in solving the mystery of the masterwork’s origin. When they are not working as a pair, they are working against each other. Trust is not part of their relationship.
The Last Vermeer isn’t a work of art in itself, but the tale it tells is full of entertaining twists and turns. Bang and Pearce are very good, particularly Pearce in this plum role. By the end of the film, viewers should be pleased to have had such a diversion.
King of Thieves from 2019 relates the true story, or some form of it, of several elderly crooks who carry out a heist at a London bank. Whereas The Last Vermeer boasts a fast-moving, complicated plot, King of Thieves is static, slow-moving, at times boring. The elderly felons plot and plan, then plot and plan some more. They are inspired to do the crime by a clever younger guy who happens upon the key to the bank building. Eventually, the codgers buy tools, they break down a wall. That’s not exciting viewing. There really are not an adequate number of well-imagined tough-guy interchanges or comic relief moments to break up the monotony.
What makes it worth the viewer’s time is its wonderful cast. Led by the legendary Michael Caine and Tom Courtenay, and featuring Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, and Michael Gambon, the film finally takes us through the heist and its aftermath. Then, in its final minutes, something amazing happens. A wistful moment of great magic! A moment of great originality, a tribute to these celebrated, aged British stars. Describing it would lessen its value. But I’ll say that the fourth wall of the cinema breaks open, and King of Thieves becomes—just for a little while-- a treat. I replayed this moment a couple more times to fully enjoy its magnitude.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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