In the aftermath of war, especially one as psychologically scarring as World War II, people become obsessed with black and white. Who was right, and who was wrong. But ironically, wartime is when shades of grey have the most variation, when the lines between hero and villain, patriot and traitor, are constantly in flux. And with this particular conflict, there is no shortage of fascinating historical figures who defy easy categorization.
Lyrebird explores the wartime activities of Han van Meegeren, whom you have perhaps never heard of (unless you happen to hail from the Netherlands, where he is something of a celebrity.) Immediately following the war, former Dutch Resistance worker Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) is charged with tracking down individuals who had sold stolen art from Dutch Jews to the Nazis, specifically one priceless Vermeer painting sold to Hermann Göring for a staggering 1.6 million guilders, making it one of the most expensive sales in art history. The trail quickly leads Joseph to Han, a flamboyantly eccentric art dealer of questionable loyalty (played by Guy Pearce at his most gregarious and flippantly charming). But one question remains: How did Han get his hands on a priceless Vermeer in the first place?
Lyrebird devotes a tremendous amount of energy to this mystery. But if the film makes a misstep, it’s in overvaluing the surprise element of the Vermeer reveal. The film only really comes alive after the secret of the Vermeer painting is exposed to Joseph, because then we can get to the much more interesting commentary on the nature of heroism, how society values art, and the enthralling story of an endlessly fascinating Dutch legend.
It’s hard to watch Lyrebird and not wish that we were watching a film entirely about Han van Meegeren and his exploits, rather than a less compelling figure trying to solve a lukewarm mystery. This may be one of the rare occasions where a more straightforward biopic approach might have been welcome. As it stands, the opening third of the film is a bit of a slog. Joseph is a thinly drawn character with little to define him beyond an unexplored background in the Resistance, and a wife who, in the course of fighting the Nazis, had to do some unsavory things that he has yet to fully forgive her for. He isn’t the most sympathetic or engaging character to build a narrative on, especially when you’ve got Guy Pearce swanning around in the background.
After a while, though, Lyrebird does hit a rhythm once the origins of the painting are explored. Because now, we’re not just talking about this one painting, we’re discussing the gray areas of life under occupation. If you’re going to parties with Nazis and profiting financially from your relationship with them, but are also intentionally costing them money that would otherwise go to the war effort, are you a collaborator or a saboteur? Do you deserve to be punished or rewarded?
Lyrebird also has quite a bit to say about the commodification of art, and how seemingly arbitrary values are placed on paintings. A piece of art by Johannes Vermeer is worth an absurd amount of money by any standards, but it’s unclear whether the brushstrokes themselves merit such a hefty price, or if a Vermeer is valuable simply because we have decided a Vermeer is valuable.
The film is clearly overflowing with ideas and director Dan Friedkin is eager to explore all of them enthusiastically. So it’s a shame that so much of Lyrebird gets bogged down by the fairly dull minutiae of the original mystery of the painting and its uninspired investigator. The end result is a film with a great deal of potential but one that runs the risk of losing audiences before it hits its stride.
(Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; release TBA)