Girl with a Pearl Earring
review by Elias Savada, 26 December 2003

Delft, Holland never looked so luxurious, even on a frosty wintry day, as it does in Girl With a Pearl Earring, one of the most beautifully mounted films of the year, thanks in large part to the stunning cinematography by Eduardo (The Wings of the Dove and What Dreams May Come) Serra and vibrant production design by Ben Van Os, who helped create the cold-to-the touch look of last year's Max, Menno Meyjes's debut that created a disturbing portrait of a pre-dictator Hitler as a young artist. There's also a splendid score by Alexandre Desplat that paints well with the sunlight and shadows against the monochromatic grey and brown visuals. This new British-Luxemburg co-production starring Scarlett Johansson in the title role is also a first feature, from editor and documentary/telefeature filmmaker Peter Webber, who reveals a steady hand slowly turning the pages of Tracy Chevalier's acclaimed 1999 novel as adapted by Olivia Hetreed, also a film editor credited with her second produced screenplay (following her introductory effort, A Small Dance, by a dozen years).

You can sense Webber's passion for the film's more renown subject, Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, and that character's unsure, forbidden relationship with the fictionalized Griet (Johansson), a tilemaker's peasant daughter whose reputation totters between a mild case of anxiety and damnation. Theirs is but one of the very speculative bindings that envelop the ravishing film. And therein lies the problem, that the story is basically a modern day soap opera wrapped in a 17th century bodice. While most of the cast gets in the proper period mood underneath the Dutch wardrobe and makeup, some of the performances ring hollow, especially Colin Firth as the henpecked husband/brilliant artist turned soul-seller, whose dour expressions rain on everyone else's parade. Johansson gets acres more out of her role, again proving she has real talent. I suspect she'll collect kudos and a statuette for this or her contribution as one of the forlorn souls (Bill Murray being the other) adrift in Tokyo in Lost in Translation. While Tom Wilkerson doesn't have much screen time, he definitely makes you remember his part as Vermeer's lecherous patron Van Ruijven, who protected the artist from the vicissitudes of the 17th century Dutch economy. Also Essie Davis, as Vermeer's beautiful, tight-fisted, and religiously tormented wife Catharina), registers extremely well as a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

Griet is the girl from the proverbial wrong side of town forced to find work as the Vermeers' indentured maid servant when her father is blinded in a kiln accident. She lands, somehow, at the Vermeers' doorstep with a great deal of Catholic disdain tossed at her by their uppity, higher-than-thou class values.

The drudgery of endless washings, scrubbings, and silver polishings are enlightened first by a glimpse of the work of her master. And then of the long-haired, sad puppy master himself, who convinces her to sit for him and become the subject of his most famous painting. (Scholars believe that it was one of Vermeer's half-dozen daughters that was the actual figure.) It's not so much love that Griet feels for the artist, but pity for the forlorn artist and the too many women (wife, mother-in-law, daughters) suffocating his life, although Griet does show a keen interest in learning about his craft. Hey, her father is, or was, an artisan; like father, like daughter. The family (other than the master of the house) never warm to Griet, especially the mischievously evil, curly-haired 12-year-old daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann), and bitterly cunning mother-in-law Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), who quickly sees through how the girl is wont to be the painter's muse. They belittle Griet at any chance, accuse her of stealing or sneaking about or shirking her duties. As for the brooding artist himself, he says nary a word until a half-hour has passed. Cillian Murphy, the star of the hugely successful 28 Days Later, is back dealing with dead meat on a lighter scale as Pieter, the Vermeer's butcher (not to be confused with Pieter Van Ruijven, who never gets called by his first name in the film), who is attracted to Griet. He's a clever lad anxious to impress. Griet, her awe held in restraint so as not to respond too boldly when Vermeer shows her his artist's tools, shows a growing uneasiness in his casual closeness. It's interesting hat the filmmaker associates darkness or blackness with this intimacy, when he covers her with his robe to show her the technical marvel of a camera obscura or when he helps her grind up a blackish substance with a mallet.

Tensions build, rumors fly, and green-eyed monsters flitter about the frosty air of the local marketplace. Yes, Girl With a Pearl Earring is a sight for sore eyes, but there's something missing here that would make the film a truly mesmerizing piece. A good story.


 

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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