Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:35 - Released 12/26/03

“Girl With A Pearl Earring” is the name of one of the most famous artworks by 17th-century Dutch painter Johann Vermeer, a contemporary of Rembrandt whose work received some moderate acclaim during his lifetime but who was not really appreciated until a few centuries after his death. The painting’s subject matter is no more or less than its name implies, depicting simply a beautiful young woman, half smiling, her body in profile, her head turned playfully toward the viewer, with a blue cloth wrapped in her blonde hair and a large, smooth, teardrop-shaped pearl hanging from her left ear. The film by the same name marks an impressive big-screen debut for erstwhile British TV director Peter Webber, who, along with cinematographer Eduardo Serra, has imbued it with a look comparable to the style of the master’s paintings: its dark, rich, layered tones, defined by soft candle lighting and a deeply naturalistic sense, convey a staid, contemplative, and, well, some might say, dull sense of reality.

Okay, okay, art lovers, back off; I’m not saying Vermeer’s works are boring—on the contrary; their rich detail and devotion to perspective and light interplay make them quite intriguing—but you have to admit, most of them are not exactly action-packed. And neither is Webber’s movie. Based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier and adapted for the screen by Olivia Hetreed, it is a quiet and deeply real film that will attract Vermeer scholars, lovers of the old masters, and those who read Chevalier’s book, as well as anyone who enjoys genuinely artistic cinema for its own sake. But if you’re interested in a thrilling plot, or even a decent romance, you may be somewhat disappointed. Webber’s film drips with art, but it doesn't exactly inspire deeply felt emotion.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson (who recently impressed Bill Murray—and all the rest of us—with the easy sincerity she displayed in Lost In Translation) as an apparently fictional servant girl of Vermeer’s (Colin Firth), who could have served as the model for the painting. The film begins in Vermeer’s home of Delft, Holland, in 1665, where Griet (Johansson), a poor girl who is probably in her mid-teens, must leave her parents and go to work for the artist’s family. When she arrives, she meets Tanneke the cook (Joanna Scanlan), who shows her what her duties will be, including scrubbing, cleaning, laundry, fetching water, and doing dishes. She also meets Vermeer’s spoiled, pregnant wife (Essie Davis) and her aging mother (Judy Parfitt), who instruct her to clean the artist’s studio only when he is not there, and not to touch anything. One day when she is scouring the studio windows, Vermeer discovers her and asks her to pose. Her interest and understanding of the way light and color work together inspires the artist, and he is soon letting her buy his supplies and even mix the paint, much to the chagrin of his increasingly jealous wife.

Her charms also work on a few other men, such as a young butcher named Pieter (Cillian Murphy) and Vermeer’s wealthy, middle-aged patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who is so taken with her innocent beauty he asks for a family portrait with Griet included as a servant. His intentions prove more dubious than it first seems, however, and Griet soon finds herself caught between the artist she respects, his suspicious family, and his oily employer, who makes it clear that he desires she do more than simply a model for a painting.

Some may think Johansson got this part because her name fits in so well with the nationality of the characters (actually, she is of Danish descent), but anyone who sees the painting for which the film is named will not disagree she bears more than a passing resemblance to the girl in question. Her nationality and even her looks are less of a factor, however, than her ability to portray Griet with the kind of quiet delicacy required for the part. Johansson and director Webber could have chosen to make the character more assertive; the girl in the actual painting could be construed as almost saucy in her expression, but she chose the more difficult route. Her quiet, faithfully servile demeanor, betrayed by flickers of an emerging sexuality and a higher, more intelligent understanding of Vermeer’s gift, combine to ensure we would see her as an innocent but astute young woman—a delicate flower just on the verge of blooming, and aware of it—which makes the artist’s insightful perception of her, and Van Ruijven’s loutish misuse, all the more emotionally resonant. Consider the scene where Vermeer asks her repeatedly to wet her lips, and she, reluctant, chooses to do so without ever showing her tongue. This scene, at once conveying her desire not to tempt him and the seductive nature over which she may or may not have any knowing control, smolders with pent-up sexual tension.

Like all great art, Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring” —which, incidentally, is on display at the Mauritshius Museum of Art in The Hague—seems to convey more than is immediately visible on the surface. And thanks to the artistic abilities of Webber, Hetreed, Serra, and of Johansson, Firth, and the supporting cast, this film does that also. Just as its use of color and lighting recollect the intriguing beauty of Vermeer’s multi-layered artworks, so does the screenplay, the exquisite acting, and the judicious, style-conscious direction bring to mind the depth of his subject matter. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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