Peter Webber’s gorgeous Girl with a Pearl Earring is a work of lightweight conjecture. Based on Tracy Chevaller’s award-winning novel of the same name, this fictionalized story attempts to reveal the events surrounding the paintings of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth), whose life scholars know very little about. When the gruelingly polite Griet (Scarlett Johanson) goes to work at Vermeer’s home, she quickly catches the eye of no less than three men: the hermetic Vermeer; horny butcher boy Pieter (28 Days Later‘s Cillian Murphy); and evil patron of the arts Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). Steeped in remarkably obsessive period detail, the film observes how Griet makes food, washes clothes, and mixes colors for the various inhabitants of Vermeer’s gloomy abode. The details are so rigorous it’s as if the filmmakers have been slowly chipping away at the cracked surfaces of Vermeer’s paintings to reveal the history buried beneath. Every frame in the film is meant to evoke one of the artist’s now-famous works (the actors all stand and sit in the right place, sunlight is its own dynamic character), and as such Girl with a Pearl Earring quickly reveals itself, perhaps appropriately, as a cinematographer’s creation. But the film’s only sense of wonder is the recognition of Vermeer’s paintings coming to life (at the critic’s screening I attended, fans of his works were quick to respond with “oohs” and “aahs”). Not surprisingly, the film’s story (class issues and poverty get the Cliffs Notes treatment) and performances (all stolen glances, hushed tones, canal-side cat-walking, and Phantom of the Opera gondola transport) aren’t quite as finicky as the color palette. Essie Davis and Judy Parfitt, as Vermeer’s wife and mother-in-law, respectively, bring to mind the hysterical mother-grandmother tag-team from Flowers in the Attic. If this banal soap opera noticeably lacks a soul, it bears mentioning that the film still features the best shot of the year. Griet walks into a room where a suspicious Catharina (Davis) is playing Solitaire (of course!), and watches the maid setting plates on a nearby table from the corner of her eye. The camera pulls back to reveal Vermeer sitting next to his wife, starring at the maid he’s enamored with. Again the camera pulls back, this time revealing Maria Thins (Parfitt) to the left of Vermeer, starring at her son-in-law looking at the maid. What with Webber’s remarkable use of silence and off-screen space, it’s this one scene in the film that truly attempts to understand the emotional and psychological baggage of the aesthetic surface.
- Peter Webber
- Olivia Hetreed
- Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan, Alakina Mann
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