2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: It is late May 1945, a mere weeks after Nazi occupiers have yielded to Allied ones, when a painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer surfaces in an Austrian cave belonging to former second-in-command Hermann Goering. “Who sold this Dutch national treasure to the criminal, and why?” are the questions that occupy the mind of allied investigator Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a formerly exiled Dutch Jew now back home in a Canadian uniform. And it is the question that purportedly occupies the plot of the film “Lyrebird,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. At least until the film mistakes a plot twist for a plot bait and switch, resulting in cinematic whiplash that does great disservice to an otherwise interesting and previously untold story.
When “Lyrebird” begins we see, in addition to dark cave discoveries of masterpieces, Nazi sympathizers face public square firing squads in Amsterdam. The marker is to tell you that the stakes are high, a matter of life and death for those condemned or exonerated of collaboration with the invaders. Seasoned audiences, certainly those into the World War II genre, need no such introduction. But it is director Dan Friedkin’s first feature film and it seems as if he is still establishing guideposts for himself.
Piller is determined to find the truth behind the life of the painting, with the help of soft spoken assistant Minna (Vicky Krieps) and loyal henchman/war buddy Espen (Roland Moller). He uses soft threats and halfhearted intimidation, hiding behind the mantle of power of the fading Allied command, which is soon to cede control back to civilian government. These incoming regents include incompetent members of the Dutch Ministry of Justice, seemingly set on foiling Piller’s investigation for motives unclear and, for most of the film, unknown. At the center of the mystery is a little-known Dutch artist, Han Van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), who held down the fort and appears to have made out nicely during the occupation. “Was he or wasn’t he [a collaborator]?,” is one of “Lyrebird’s” many supposed tension points.
Something seems amiss, however, long before the film can make a neck-breaking screech from military investigation to B-movie courtroom drama. For one, both Bang and Moller are Danish, Krieps is from Luxembourg, and Pearce is Australian. I’m no linguist but not one of the accents that pepper the film sound Dutch, certainly not any of the protagonists. Nor does the role of the Dutch government obstructor, clearly plopped in there for cinematic tension, make much sense. Most crucially, Van Meegeren’s own lack of self-preservation instinct, his unbelievable secrecy, is at odds not only with human nature but with the character’s own over-sized ego and solipsism. Pearce makes matters worse by imbuing his character with the over-exaggerated affectations of an artist that sounds and seems more Spanish than Dutch, clown-like instead of inspired.
Despite careful costumes and showy post-War sets, “Lyrebird,” stumbles repeatedly over itself, over its own desire to make something unnaturally thrilling out of an interesting but fairly dry story.
Things deteriorate in “Lyrebird’s” second half, where a public trial airs out the warring factions of this debate about loyalty and authenticity. Again, the script gets criminally in the way by portraying the courtroom scene in clear contemporary terms, dressed up in garb and woodwork of the time. There’s the treacherous witness, the showy cross-examination, the last minute surprises. It plays like Jim Carrey’s spectacle in “Liar, Liar,” and not with the gravitas such a setting should carry. Once more, one wonders why the accused, with their lives on the line and their impassioned lawyers, would save revelations for the final moments. The answer is nothing but overwrought cinematic effect.
The best that can be said for these closing moments is that Claes Bang, talented as he is, properly conveys the dedication and conviction that his character demands and that the script asks him to betray. He’s the consummate aging man on a mission of righteousness and when the three rings move to the side he is permitted to command the floor and the scene.
“Lyrebird” was produced by Imperative Entertainment and is awaiting U.S. distribution