Girl With a Pearl Earring
Director : Peter Webber
Screenplay : Olivia Hetreed (based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Colin Firth (Johannes Vermeer), Scarlett Johansson (Griet), Tom Wilkinson (Van Ruijven), Judy Parfitt (Maria Thins), Cillian Murphy (Pieter), Essie Davis (Catharina), Joanna Scanlan (Tanneke), Alakina Mann (Cornelia), Chris McHallem (Griet's Father), Gabrielle Reidy (Griet's Mother)
Girl With a Pearl Earring is a fictionalized imagining of how one of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s most famous paintings came to be. Set in 17th-century Delft, Holland, it is a slow-moving, but engrossing film that is full of heavy silences, smoldering looks, and sensual photography that spins visual gold out of the most mundane of everyday activities—cooking, laundering, going to the butcher’s shop. The characters do not speak their most important dialogue with their mouths, but rather with their eyes and their body language.
Scarlett Johansson, in her second great performance of the year (her first was in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation), stars as Griet, an illiterate peasant girl who works as a maid for the Vermeer family in order to save her family from complete destitution. Griet, who is the very essence of porcelain beauty, though not fragility, quickly learns her place in the dysfunctional Vermeer household, which is run by Vermeer’s domineering mother-in-law, Maria (Judy Parfitt). Griet’s natural, wide-eyed beauty earns the spiteful jealousy of Vermeer’s wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), and she is the constant target of Vermeer’s curly-headed, malicious 10-year-old daughter, Cornelia (Alakina Mann), who at one point tries to frame her for stealing a brush.
But, that is not all of Griet’s woes. She is also targeted by several men, including Vermeer’s wealthy patron, a dirty old man named Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) who commissions the titular painting for his smarmy delights. Meanwhile, Griet also catches the eye of Pieter (28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy), the butcher’s son who, aside from Griet, seems to be the only character in the film who doesn’t have a questionable agenda. Yet, his decency is what makes him so boring and assures him a place on the sidelines while Griet dodges the vipers around her.
The presence of Vermeer himself, played with sullen intensity by Colin Firth, is kept low during the first half of the film. We mostly see him lurking in the corners of the frame, and his sunlit studio on the house’s top floor becomes a kind of metaphor for his tortured artistry. Surprisingly little historical information is know about Vermeer, so how he is presented here is borne largely out of the filmmakers’ romanticized imaginations. He is played as a man of great talent who is nonetheless constantly caught in the web of others more powerful than he, particularly Van Ruijven and Maria.
In Griet, though, Vermeer finds what may be a kindred soul—another trapped beauty. Griet becomes his model for a painting, and the sessions are treated like a secret affair. In fact, Vermeer’s wife cannot find out, especially when her treasured pearl earrings become one of the painting’s centerpieces.
Despite having virtually no on-screen physical contact between the characters, Girl With a Pearl Earring is a rapturously sensuous film. The sensuality is largely suggested, with Vermeer’s painting becoming a visual metaphor for the embroiling of his mature senses with Grieta’s emerging sexuality. In fact, after Grieta first poses for him, she is so aroused that she must find a release in poor Pieter, who is so smitten with her amorousness that he asks her to marry him. Yet, this is hardly the film’s most erotic moment, as it trades the perfection of suggestion for the realities of clumsy physicality; rather, it is the brief scene in which Vermeer for the first time spies Griet without her white cap on and is stunned (as are we) at the beauty of her auburn hair.
Director Peter Webber, a veteran of British television and documentaries, and cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Unbreakable) give Girl With a Pearl Earring a remarkable look that often self-consciously mimics Vermeer’s paintings in both their color palettes and their framing. The idea of the film itself being like a painting is apt, as very little happens on-screen in terms of action, but much is conveyed by simple visuals. In a sense, Girl With a Pearl Earring is like returning to an earlier, pre-sound cinematic form, when visuals dominated and we didn’t need to hear what the characters were saying in order to know at the core of our hearts what they were feeling.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick