'Lyrebird': Film Review | Telluride 2019

Telluride Film Festival
An uneven but enjoyable historical drama with a standout turn from Guy Pearce.

Ridley Scott helped to produce this drama based on a true story of an art forgery that rocked the Nazi high command during and after World War II.

World War II movies have certainly covered almost every possible angle, and yet Lyrebird finds a fresh and fascinating story to tell. Based on the true tale of a Dutch artist who had dealings with Nazi tyrant Hermann Goring and was prosecuted after the liberation of Holland, this film definitely tantalizes. Although the picture has imperfections that prevent it from reaching the top ranks of World War II thrillers, it should find modest but receptive audiences.

The film from first-time director Dan Friedkin (formerly a successful producer of such pics as The Mule and All the Money in the World) begins by introducing a Dutch Jewish officer, Joseph Piller, played by Claes Bang, the star of 2017 Cannes Palme d'Or winner The Square (another movie set in the art world). He is charged with prosecuting war criminals, and he zeroes in on one mysterious figure, an artist and art dealer named Han van Meegeren (superbly played by Guy Pearce). During the German occupation of Holland, van Meegeren sold a famous Vermeer painting to Goring, who fancied himself an art connoisseur, for a staggering sum of money. Since Vermeer painted only about 30 paintings during his life, they all became valuable and, of course, he is something of a Dutch national hero, which meant that the sale of a treasured work to a notorious Nazi looms as a despicable act.

Yet it does not take long until Piller begins to suspect that there is more to the story. He begins to develop a complex relationship with van Meegeren, suspicion mixed with curiosity and growing admiration. For it turns out that the painting van Meegeren sold to Goring was not a real Vermeer but a forgery that van Meegeren had expertly painted and assembled. So he swindled the Nazi monster out of a small fortune for a worthless artifact.

Some of Piller’s superiors question the possibility of forgery and push to have van Meegeren condemned as a war criminal; they also do not want to believe that they could be so easily duped. The film aims to construct an intricate mystery plot, but here Friedkin and screenwriters James McGee, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby run into problems. There are simply too many characters introduced, and it is hard to keep track of all the political machinations. August Diehl, who also stars in Terrence Malick’s World War II drama, A Hidden Life, is cast as Piller’s rival and nemesis, but the nature of the hostility and competitiveness between them is never clearly established.

Part of the problem is that many of the supporting characters are played by actors completely unfamiliar to American audiences, and we have trouble distinguishing them. It may be that Friedkin is simply too inexperienced a director to bring clarity to such a vast canvas, or the overly convoluted screenplay may be the prime culprit. But the film is a bit too discursive to keep us fully engaged. The large cast includes not only a gaggle of soldiers, officials and lawyers but a number of women — van Meegeren’s ex-wife and mistress and a couple of romantic interests for Piller as well. One of the women in Piller’s life is played by Vicky Krieps, the co-star of Phantom Thread, but this fine actress also gets lost in the large ensemble.

And yet despite the sometimes clumsy exposition, Lyrebird turns out to be an enjoyable melodrama. For one thing, it is a handsome production, beautifully photographed by Remi Adefarasin (Elizabeth, Match Point) and impeccably designed. The film works primarily because the story itself is so captivating and because Pearce’s career-capping performance makes van Meegeren endlessly fascinating. The courtroom scene when van Meegeren’s forgery is finally exposed is possibly embellished by the filmmakers, but it still makes for a juicy climax. After the forger is freed and hailed as a national hero for duping the top Nazi brass, Piller discovers evidence that the forger was far from an admirable character. But Pearce has kept us riveted with his portrayal of a brilliant, seductive, completely amoral opportunist. 

When the pic moves away from van Meegeren, it loses some of its intensity, which is not a criticism of the performances by Bang or the other actors. But Pearce knows how to charm an audience with the most restrained and understated technique. The actor who has given an impressive range of performances, in everything from The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert to L.A. Confidential and The Proposition, has probably never been properly appreciated. In Lyrebird, he charms the audience without ever softening the character. That is as deft a seduction as the greatest swindle performed by a master con artist.

Production company: Imperative Entertainment, 30West
Cast: Claes Bang, Guy Pearce, Vicky Krieps, Roland Moller, August Diehl, Olivia Grant, Susannah Doyle
Director: Dan Friedkin
Screenwriters: James McGee, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
Based on the book by: Jonathan Lopez
Producers: Ryan Friedkin, Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Peter Heslop, Gino Falsetto
Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin
Production designer: Arthur Max
Costume designer: Guy Speranza
Editor: Victoria Boydell
Music: Johan Soderqvist
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

 

117 minutes