Girl with a Pearl Earring
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 inner expression.

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.


Directed by:
Peter Webber

Starring:
Colin Firth
Scarlett Johansson
Tom Wilkinson
Essie Davis
Joanna Scanlan
Cillian Murphy 
Judy Parfitt

Written by:
Olivia Hetreed

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate
for children under 13.

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