Film review: The Monuments Men (12A)

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How do you attribute value to a piece of art?

Under the auctioneer’s hammer earlier this month, Camille Pissarro’s impressionist work Boulevard Montmartre, Matinee De Printemps almost scaled the dizzy heights of £20 million. A steal.

The painting belonged to Jewish industrialist Max Silberberg, who was forced to break up his collection by the Nazis. Thankfully, the painting found its way back to Silberberg’s family in 2000.

Many other artworks from around Europe, plundered by Hitler’s troops in the late 1930s and early 1940s, might have been lost forever were it not for the valiant efforts of the Monuments Men.

This small platoon of museum curators, architects, artists and historians, who were told old to be drafted, shared an unwavering belief in the preservation of 1,000 years of culture.

They risked their lives to locate caches of stolen artworks and return paintings, sculptures and drawings to their rightful owners.

This fascinating true story of heroism is retold as a gung-ho Ocean’s Eleven-style caper by George Clooney in his fifth directorial feature.

As history lessons go, The Monuments Men is lightweight and mildly entertaining.

President Roosevelt (Mike Dalton) sanctions Harvard art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) to venture behind enemy lines and save as many treasures as possible.

Stokes recruits six men – curator James Granger (Matt Damon), Sergeant Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Sergeant Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Lieutenant Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Private Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and Major Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) – and despatches them to key points to search for the loot.

“Take no chances and remember – your lives are more important than a piece of art,” Stokes tells his men.

Granger heads to Paris, where he hopes to extract vital intelligence from Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), curator at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

However, she is reluctant to help, believing the Allies will relocate the recovered treasures to collections in Russia or America.

The Monuments Men strikes an uneven tone between comedy and drama, which sometimes jars.

The central mission to outwit Hitler is structured as vignettes around Belgium, France and Germany, converging on Altaussee in Austria for the race to recover Michelangelo’s marble sculpture Madonna Of Bruges from a salt mine before the Soviets sweep into the spa town. Consequently, the ensemble cast are divided for extended periods, resulting in sluggish dramatic momentum.

Clooney, Damon and co look dapper in military attire while Blanchett comes closest to delivering a full performance in limited screen time.

At the very end of the film, Roosevelt turns to Stokes and asks, “Thirty years from now, you think anyone’s going to remember these men died for a piece of art?”

If Clooney’s film is their enduring legacy, perhaps not.

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