The mystery is great enough to tickle Tim’s idiosyncratic senses for perfectionism, so much so that the self-confessed non-artist sets out on what some may call a folly; Tim will paint a copy of a Vermeer, The Music Lesson from circa 1665, down to the most exact detail, in order to unlock the great artist’s methods and fulfil a personal dream. And from the help of entertainment duo Penn and Teller (the former as affable narrator, the second on directorial duties), he might just achieve these grand goals.
From the start, a strong parallel for Tim’s journey could, admittedly at a stretch, be Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in which the 1982 film’s near-mad protagonist orders the impossible by planning to drag a steamship over a mountain. Though Fitzcarraldo’s particular struggle borders on lunacy, Tim’s grapple with Vermeer’s MO is madness of a more commendable kind. But just what does he have to prove, exactly? Besides the enigma surrounding Vermeer’s method (which Tim manages to figure out surprisingly early on, after many sleepless nights thinking, dreaming from the perspective of Vermeer’s easel), it’s the inventor-turned-part-time painter’s single-minded fascination and commitment to his mammoth task that gives this otherwise bare bones production a glowing impetus.
Our jaws become increasingly slack as our unlikely hero constructs the very room that Vermeer painted The Music Lesson in 17th century Holland, using his own pragmatic genius to produce the furniture, instruments, clothing, and even the glass in the windows depicted in the painting, and composing them all exactly as they should be thanks to the modern miracles of geometry. Pulling a handful of art historians on screen to lend the film some cultural heft (though truly, it needs none), and visiting Buckingham Palace to come face-to-face with the masterpiece itself is all gripping stuff, but it’s when Tim begins the actual task of painting that this veritable Moby Dick tale shows us an almost superhuman application to something greater than oneself.
When Tim’s crazy and, by the end, emotional journey is complete, we may find ourselves wondering if we could ever be similarly devoted, innovative and unfalteringly driven by a purpose. Tim has been distracted by his many quirky, yet in many cases pointless, creations through his life, and Vermeer’s longstanding enchantment on him seems to have finally broken the circle for him, or what could at least be gleamed through all the hardship and toil as something approaching creative bliss. The perfection Tim seeks can never be a physical thing – but it’s hopeful that he realises along his journey that perfection is simply a mindset.
But what’s so rare about Tim’s Vermeer is, ultimately, the apparent lack of ‘flair’ to its own construction; Teller is wise to not over-gild his straight-faced documentary, opting instead to let the art speak for itself without – excuse the quasi-pun – any framing, by means of showiness or pretension. And Tim’s obsession (or love, same thing), is what illuminates this delightful small-scale movie about a small-scale pursuit to one that reflects our own desire for accomplishing something important in our lives. Tim’s Vermeer has as many layers as you want to give it, just like The Music Lesson’s ancient coats of paint; but that’s if you can distinguish his from Vermeer’s in the first place. Fitzcarraldo would be proud.