Girl with a Pearl
review by Gregory
Avery, 12 December 2003
The woman strikes the floor with
her cane, trapping the scrubcloth. "He's started a new
painting. There's no buyer. He won't even let me see it."
Griet (Scarlett Johansson), the
servant girl who's at the center of the film Girl With a Pearl
Earring, receives this information from Maria (Judy Parfitt),
and it's difficult to tell whether they're supposed to be words of
wonderment or of warning. Probably both. Maria is often seen wearing
a black dress and close-fitting cap that gives her a Mephistophelean
look, and she turns up at odd moments, as if deliberately keeping
the serving staff on their guard. She is also the mother-in-law of
the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, in whose household Griet goes to
work in the city of Delft in the 1660s. She has assumed control of
the pursestrings, and the house, ostensibly so that her successful
and talented son-in-law may be free to work, unencumbered, at any
and all times.
Many busy hands have been at work
to create the 17th century world seen in the film (Luxembourg stands
in for the Netherlands), but it is not for vainglorious purposes.
The sometimes exquisite visual design -- -Eduardo Serra did the
cinematography, and the production design was by Ben Van Os, who
previously worked on several of Peter Greenaway's films -- gives the
impression of Griet gradually becoming steeped more and more in the
colours of Vermeer's paintings as she moves more and more into the
Vermeer household. For another, it is to give us an idea of what it
was like to live and work in an Old Europe upper-class household,
with its politics that define those who are higher-up and who are
under employ, what may or may not be said and done and by whom, and
how one's footing may become precarious or lost depending on how
well one can silently learns, intuits, or adapts to the strictures
of place and manner.
One of Vermeer's patrons, Van
Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson, in an unlikely bit of casting), requests to
have Griet's portrait done -- to hang in his "private
cabinet", which we do get a chance to see prior to the end the
film -- and this subtly upsets the balance of things in the home.
The painter's wife -- who, as played by Essie Davis, has the face of
a beautiful but anguished Florentine saint -- resents the commission
in ways she can only barely express (although it will result in one
of Vermeer's most famous and admired works of art). And Vermeer
(Colin Firth) discovers that Griet has an natural sense of the
aesthetic, something missing in his wife, if she ever had it, and
which Scarlett Johansson conveys, much to her credit, mostly through
The film deserves to be seen for
Johansson's work, which is impressive compared to her previous
performances in Lost in Translation and Ghost World.
Her face unadorned and framed by a white cap or kerchief, she
communicates everything we need to know about her character without
recourse to dialogue -- here is a thinking, feeling girl who has
opinions, respects and admires beauty, has a deep sense of what's
right and wrong, and doesn't sell herself short -- she discovers
that, like "Master" Vermeer, she can interpret her
surroundings in ways that can be transformed into art -- yet she
must also traverse every working day mindful of her place (a word, a
gesture, and she could be out on the street).
Like a Pinter drama, much of what's
going on is in the unspoken. Vermeer enjoys the fact that Griet sees
and comprehends the same aspects about art and the making of it as
he. Everyone thinks that something else must be going on between
them, but the deal is that it is not, and Vermeer, despite his
talent, melts in the face of opposition. Colin Firth, cast as
Vermeer, doesn't generate any chemistry with Johansson, though --
Firth is back in "hopeless" mode, here, staring into the
middle distance and brooding away. Is he supposed to be Heathcliff
to Johansson's Cathy? When his Vermeer sees Griet's hair unfolding
from beneath her starch cap for the first time -- long, beautiful,
and a moment of revelation (it's the first time the audience has
seen it, as well) -- he looks as dull-witted and trapped in amber as
in all his other scenes.
And the film itself, despite its
subject matter, lands with a soft thud. I haven't read the Tracy
Chevalier novel on which the film is based, but I suspect that a lot
of the answers are contained there that we don't get from the film.
Does Griet go on to become anything like an artist herself, or does
she end up leading a quiet ordinary, if boring, life? Would it have
made any difference if she had become anything more than a
handservant to the great painter (unlikely, given the customs of the
time, but still...)? We never find out what the creation of the
title painting means to either Griet or Vermeer; the only thing
Griet is shown getting out of the whole thing is a pair of earrings.
It's not enough.
PG-13 - Parents
Some material may
for children under 13.