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Girl with a Pearl Earring

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Girl with a Pearl Earring

from Film Forum, 12/23/03

The origins of a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer are at the center of novelist Tracey Chevalier's book Girl with a Pearl Earring. The painting, sometimes called "the Dutch Mona Lisa," gave Chevalier the idea to explore the life of the woman who might have been the subject of the work. She used what we know about Vermeer to invent a tantalizing plot about repressed passion, class prejudice, and the rare gift of artistic insight.

Now, director Peter Webber has delivered a beautiful, soft-spoken work based on the novel, bringing this provocative fiction to life with the help of two talented actors: Colin Firth (Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually) and Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation.) Webber captures a vivid and convincing recreation of 17th century Holland, where young Griet goes to work as a maid for Vermeer's household. Griet sees to it that nothing in Vermeer's studio is disturbed as she cleans, so his painting will go untroubled. But her intuitions about light and composition lead to an inevitable influence on the master's work, and her humble service impresses him deeply. He spends his life surrounded by greedy and arrogant family members and patrons, and thus Griet's quiet spirit draws him powerfully.

This is the second time this year that Scarlett Johansson has played a young lady with repressed longings, underappreciated and neglected, who is suddenly noticed by a depressed but observant older man. In both stories, their budding friendship toes the line of infidelity, and yet their ill-advised relationship draws the flaws in an already established marriage into the light. While this film is not as complex or as satisfying as Lost in Translation, it is worth seeing for lush, "painterly" cinematography, and for Johansson's performance.

Webber captures the young actress's unique ability to suggest deep reservoirs of intelligence and emotion concealed behind dark eyes that seem to belong to a woman older and wiser than herself. In doing so, Webber finds the precise passion that indwells the painting, so when we finally see the finished work, we don't blink; it seems perfectly plausible that this is what someone would paint after looking at Johansson for hours. An actress has not communicated so much through so little since Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue.

Fortunately, they have found an actor who can bring the same amount of gravity to the screen to portray the painter. I never would have thought of Colin Firth to portray a contemplative, passionate painter, but he makes the intense, brooding figure intriguing without making him laughably morose.

Strong supporting work is contributed by Tom Wilkinson as a lecherous but wealthy patron who keeps the Vermeer home afloat; Essie Davis as Catharina, Vermeer's statuesque wife, possessed of both a cold beauty and a volatile temper; and Judy Parfitt as Maria Thins, Catharina's mother, a formidable figure whose wicked arrogance is cracked by the fragility of her financial condition.

Watching the film, I found myself easing into a reflective, contemplative state that movies rarely allow an audience to reach. While very little is said or done, there are important things happening in every minute of the film: curiosities developing, risks taken, covert endeavors, revelations. By inviting us to look closely for hints of emotion and suggestions of betrayal or sympathy, Webber quietly prepares us to approach Vermeer's visual art with sharper discernment. It never lectures us about the art, but it does inspire us to look more closely. I wish he could have taken this approach even farther.

The film's most important theme, however, regards the liberating and inspiring experience of being seen. This poor, abused, overlooked girl never intentionally does a thing to draw Vermeer's attention; in fact, she avoids his gaze. But when his keen vision catches in her something of substance and of shared longing—not for erotic adventures, but for beauty and revelation—it is as if, to alter a line from E. E. Cummings, "the eyes of her eyes are opened."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The filmmakers have taken great care to honor Vermeer's genius and process. The cinematography in particular is superb and helps to give insight into Vermeer's world and vision. Scarlett Johansson is sublimely expressive in a nearly nonverbal role."

Mainstream critics are again praising Johansson's talents, as well as the cinematography of this handsomely filmed story.