Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring:
A profile of the film including an interview with director Peter Webber

by Carlo Cavagna


Grade: A


I nnumerable biopics have attempted to describe the artistic process. Some, like Frida, Pollock, and Immortal Beloved, have creditably conveyed the spirit of their protagonists' form of expression. But no art biopic has succeeded as completely as Girl with a Pearl Earring in capturing the artistic moment—that magical, inexplicable converging of emotions and events when Art Happens.

How does Girl with a Pearl Earring, a work of fiction little concerned with historical accuracy, achieve this difficult feat? By focusing not on the artist, as other movies have done, but on the artist's choice of subject. It's a brilliant choice. The power of art, as Beethoven (Gary Oldman) observes in Immortal Beloved, is to transport us directly into the mental state of the artist. Girl with a Pearl Earring accomplishes this by perceiving the artists' inspiration (his model) as the artist does, rather than trying to draw up a psychological profile that explains the basis of his perspective. Girl with a Pearl Earring thus illuminates the artist's way of seeing as no biopic ever has.

The artist in question is the 17th Century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, and the painting is the titular “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Those unfamiliar with this piece could think of it as the “Mona Lisa” of Dutch art. Just as the “Mona Lisa” has a slight, enigmatic smile that has inspired centuries of speculation, the beguiling “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is seemingly caught in a momentary glance over her shoulder, her lips parted and her melancholy gaze back at the painter projecting both quiet strength and unfulfilled yearning. And other things, too, inexpressible with words.

Scarlett Johansson in GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING
Scarlett Johansson tries to see like Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Novelist Tracy Chevalier, screenwriter Olivia Hatreed, and English first-time feature director Peter Webber speculate on the meaning of that gaze. They create a fictional context for the painting that seeks to capture all the nuances of that one look. They are assisted in their efforts by director of photography Eduardo Serra (Unbreakable, The Wings of the Dove, What Dreams May Come), whose lighting choices enchantingly evoke Vermeer's compositions. Every frame of the film looks like a Dutch masterpiece.

The girl is Griet, played with repressed passion by Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, Ghost World). Because a kiln explosion has robbed Griet's father of his sight and his means of earning a living, Griet is forced to take a job as a lowly maid in Vermeer's household. There, she meets Vermeer, played with mysterious reserve by Colin Firth (TV's Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary). In their fleeting communications, Griet discovers a profound affinity for Vermeer. She is drawn to him, and swept up by forces far beyond her control. Griet becomes both a pawn in the family's power struggle with Vermeer's lascivious patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) as well as a bone of contention within the household itself—between Vermeer, his perpetually pregnant wife Catharina (Essie Davis), his shrewd mother-in-law Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), and his pettily vengeful daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann).

Accompanied by Alexandre Despalt's darkly powerful score, everything comes to a head in that one moment when Griet poses and Vermeer completes the painting. Now we see her through Vermeer's eyes; now we thoroughly understand the meaning of his work. Though the film may be fiction, the emotions expressed are truthful; all are undeniably present in Vermeer's masterpiece. Now Peter Webber should go and make a movie about why the Mona Lisa has that slight, enigmatic smile.

[Read the AboutFilm review of Girl with a Pearl Earring]

AboutFilm Question: So, you're an art history major, is that correct?

Webber: Yeah, that's correct.

AboutFilm Question: Did you always have a project like this in mind?

Webber: No, no. I was known for making very different kinds of films on television in England, and the films that the producer knew I'd made wouldn't have led him to believe that I'd be the best candidate for this. My most famous drama in England is quite controversial. It's something called Men Only, and it's a rather shocking—what would you say?—it's rather a shocking exploration of male sexuality. It caused a bit of a stir in England. I'll tell you how it happened. I've worked with [producers] Andy [Paterson] and [Anand] Tucker over a period of years on documentaries and so forth. I got into the office to see someone there, and there was a painting on the wall. It was a postcard or a poster; I can't remember now. And he heard me talking about it. I just felt this tap on my shoulder, and he said, “Well, why don't you read the script?” I think he was as surprised as I was. For all that, I'd had a passion for painting, Vermeer in particular, for a long time. I started [to read it]. The first few pages, I was thinking, “You know, my first movie is not going to be this. It's a bit polite. It's a costume drama.” [But] as I read through the script, I was falling in love with it. Really, the scene that did it for me was the piercing. The ear piercing. I said, “You know what? This is not the film I thought it was when I started to read it.” This has got a fantastic dark undertone. It's got an obsessive romantic relationship at the heart of it. There's cruelty. There's passion. There's interesting stuff about the relationship of money and art. It's about a whole bunch of stuff. I thought, “Right. This is a film I can make.” It's not what I was scared of—ending up with something like Masterpiece Theatre, a very polite, Sunday evening, BBC kind of a thing. I was determined to make something a bit different to that, and the material was there to do it with.

Question: Did you study baroque art?

Webber: I did three years at university, so I studied everything from early icon painters to surrealism in the twentieth century. I specialized in my last year in Dutch and Flemish art, as it happens.

AboutFilm Question: The film looks as if Rembrandt was your lighting director. Talk about creating that look.

Webber: [laughs] We had Eduardo Serra, so I think that's possibly even better than having a dead Dutch painter. He also is an art history major, as it happens. He did four years at the Sorbonne. So, we had an awful lot to talk about when we got together. He's worked with Patrice Leconte [the] French director, who's great. I'd seen an English film he had done, Wings of the Dove. And, the great thing about talking to Eduardo was that, although it was obvious that a DOP is going to love making a film about Vermeer, who is the master of light, he was as interested in story and character. That was really important to me, because although it's set against a very beautiful backdrop, if the characters at the heart of it aren't living, then we would have been in trouble. Sometimes beauty can be a trap. The other thing about Eduardo is that he works very quickly, which is a good thing for both director and actors. If he was in [this room], he'd put all his lights outside of that window [indicates hotel room window]. They'd be blasting through. You wouldn't see a light inside, and it would mean, if I was directing this table [indicates roundtable of reporters], that I could put you where I wanted to. A lot of DOPs that you work with, it's like, “No, they have to hit that spot exactly, and have their head turned like that.” He just works in a much more fluid, organic way, and it's a dream for both director and actors.

Question: What was your interest in Vermeer before this film started, and how did his work specifically inform the look of the film?

Webber: Vermeer has always been one of my favorite artists. I find that there's a sense of mystery, a transcendence. There's a really fascinating view of femininity. There's a whole array of things that make him a very, very special artist, and an artist who does transcend his times. It was a real challenge to capture some of that in this film. It meant we had to approach things in a certain way. It meant I had to be incredibly restrained. It meant I had to hide myself as a director, and resist the temptation to swirl the camera around and do showy things, and all the rest of it. I think that's all to the good, because what I should be doing is telling a story, rather than showing off and jumping up and down and going, “Hey!” There is a temptation, as a first-time director. You want to go, “A-ah! Look at me! I'm great!” I had the Vermeer paintings there just to remind me, all the time. You can't make a noisy film about Vermeer. You can't make a fast film about Vermeer. It imposed a fairly rigorous artistic discipline, because if we're going to be true to him, and his world, and the world that Tracy [Chevalier] had evoked for us in her novel, then you have to somehow capture his spirit. And then you begin to understand, as a filmmaker, that there are different ways of approaching things. Everything doesn't have to be quick cut, like MTV. I understand this film won't be for everyone, but I do believe that people who take the time and allow themselves to sink into this world will be taken to a very different and a very special place. That's what makes it distinctive.

Cillian Murphy and Scarlett Johansson
Cillian Murphy woos Scarlett Johansson in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Question: Scarlett [Johansson] told us that at first she lost the role, and then she got the role back again. Could you tell us a little about that, and why an eighteen-year-old actress who is really becoming quite the flavor of the year—

Webber: Well now she is. She wasn't beforehand. Way back then, it was just a straightforward conversation between director and producer, where our producer said to me, “We can't raise the money from this actress.” Now, I never saw anyone else apart from Scarlett who could do the role. Having seen her audition, she completely blew me away. Business intervenes, sometimes. Especially when you're a first-time director, you're not in a position to get exactly what you want. So it was the happiest day of all when things changed, for a number of different circumstances. We were able to get the financing, and we were able to do it with the cast that I wanted. And so that was it. I went over to Vancouver, and said, “All right. Can we do this now?” Scarlett, obviously, [said], “Right. Well, do you really want me, or what?” But I laid siege to her. I stayed in Vancouver for a week, waiting. I think that she realized after that, that I was serious. So, from my point of view, there's only ever been one Girl with a Pearl Earring. It's the shitty side to the business. It's like Van Ruijven in this film. Money comes with an attitude. You can't always do exactly what you want, and often compromises have to be made. I'm happy to say that we pushed through that period. We got the right money. We ended up with not Van Ruijven, but with people who understood exactly what we were doing. It was one of the reasons making the film was so interesting, because I could really identify with Vermeer. So that's it. That's the story.

Question: What does Scarlett bring?

Webber: Well, listen. She is an astounding actress for her age. She's got such maturity. She looks like a real person, as well. She's not like one of these ridiculous skinny anorexic waifs. To me, anyway, because I saw an awful lot of actresses, and some of them, you thought should be hospitalized. [They] should certainly eat a hamburger, for godsake. And Scarlett is just passionate, committed, intense, clever, and a great, great actress who can reveal what she's thinking on her face. That's what we needed for the role. She has got this incredible engine. I just felt, if I'm going to take a girl and repress her, put her in a situation where she's not allowed to be herself, you want somebody's who's going to have the energy that will leak out. I don't know anyone else who can do the amount of storytelling she can in her close-up. Her thoughts just run across her eyes. That's really important, in a film where there's precious little dialogue.

AboutFilm Question: Particularly given the painting involved. You're building to that exact moment when she poses and the painting comes to life.

Webber: Yeah, true. The thing is, actually, it's a bit of a trick of the light, I would say, because if you look at Scarlett's face—if you really examine Scarlett's face—she's not the girl. Her eyes are a different color, all sorts of things. But, there is a moment where she transforms herself into the painting, and I just think it's a superb acting moment. And also, you haven't got the two of them side by side. But, she's similar enough. The thing is, it wasn't about doing a look-alike competition. It was finding someone who is a great actor who is close enough. Scarlett just bewitches you, [so] that you buy she's that girl, I think.

AboutFilm Question: Scarlett told us that she didn't read the book at all before or during shooting. You've said you hadn't read the book either. Why is that?

Webber: Not when I first started, no. I deliberately held off reading the book for awhile as well. There's one thing I was scared of. I had the script. I did about eight months work on the script with the writer, to push it—as any director would do. You tend to get a script and you push it toward being the kind of film you want to make. I was worried that if I read the book too soon, I would have a whole load of [extra] knowledge in my subconscious. I had to be sure that the script was doing its work [without that]. Do you know what I mean? So I came to the book afterwards, once we had—I felt—nailed the script. Then I went to the book for the first time and read it, and then we made some final adjustments to the script. It was really holding off until I needed to read the book.

Question: Both the characters are an enigma. Vermeer is a mystery to this day. We haven't even seen all his works; some are lost. Who is this girl in the painting? Nobody knows.

Webber: Nobody, as far as I know, certainly not myself or Tracy Chevalier, are trying to pretend that this is fact. So little is known is about Vermeer, and that's a gift. If you're a storyteller, that is an absolute gift. Because if we were making a film about Rembrandt, we know loads of stuff about Rembrandt, and what ends up happening is you make a biopic. What Tracy was able to do was to use the very few facts that are known. It's true to those few facts. And then weave an imaginative tale around that, and I think in doing so, get closer to the heart of what Vermeer is about than if we had a whole bunch of historical facts. So from my point of view it's a gift. I think there's a real problem if you're making a film—some people have done whether it be about Jackson Pollock or about Picasso—it's difficult for actors, because they have to impersonate a person whose image is very strong in our memories or in our consciousness. It's something that's very tricky, I think. So I for one, am immensely grateful that we know as little as we do. Also it means you can create a certain kind of a film that has a mystery to it, has a certain kind of mood to it, which was the kind of film I wanted to make.

Question: You talked a little bit about money, the financing struggles. If you had unlimited funds, what would you have done differently?

Webber: I wouldn't have done it any differently, actually. I would have paid myself more. [laughs] Because I didn't get paid very much, as a first-time director, in England. If you come out of British TV, they're kind of saying, “Here's the keys to the kingdom. You are now going to go off and become a moviemaker. If you do really well, then the world is your oyster. But for now, here's ten dollars and just be thankful.” But joking aside, it's one of those questions that's really difficult to ask. I hired all the people I wanted to. I got the actors I wanted to. For me actually, it was the opposite. I felt like we had a ton of money. I know it's a fairly tight budget by American standards, but you have no idea of how tight the budgets I've worked on TV are. You've got no idea how tight the schedules I've worked are. So this was just the most amazing experience. It was fantastic. I really don't know what I would have done. I would have paid Scarlett more, because she deserved it.

Question: When Griet goes to the butcher's boy [played by Cillian Murphy], do you think that she has any real interest in him, or is it just a means of satisfying the sexual desire she has for Vermeer? I had that impression, but the person I saw it with had the opposite impression.

Webber: Well, let me make a general statement of intent here. What I think and feel about the characters is now irrelevant, I would say. Okay, it's all about me when I'm making it, but then I hand it over, and then it's about the audience. It doesn't matter what my intention is. It's when you're sitting in the cinema seat, and you're watching it, it's what you get. So I could tell you my opinion, but I would say it's only as valid as anyone's. Your friend's opinion is just as valid, I think, now, as my opinion. I think that she likes the butcher's boy. I think the butcher's boy is the person that, if she hadn't had her horizons raised by going into this strange household, she might have felt happy with. But she's a changed person, through going in there, through meeting this amazing, compulsive, fascinating older man. It has changed her. It has changed her outlook on life. It's changed what she wants. So in a way, it's like you can't go home again. So, I think that he's a good looking guy; she has a feeling of companionship toward him, but the reason that she's running off to see him is because she can't consummate with Vermeer. In a sense, there's been a—these are two long words together, I apologize—a metaphorical defloration. She has lost her virginity to Vermeer, in a symbolic way. She's been [worked up] beyond belief. It's reached a such a peak of intensity—I hope we captured that in the film—that it needs an outlet. It needs to come out somewhere. Also, that scene, I think, it's an acknowledgement of how she's trapped within her world. In this day and age, let's be honest, the artist and the model would probably run away together. But, it's a different time, a different place, and what makes this drama interesting is that it's about not getting what you want. We live in a world where you do get what you want all the time—or at least it's easier to get what you want. So, I would say that I agree with you rather than your friend, but I think she's perfectly entitled to her opinion. Once a movie goes out into the world, it belongs to anyone who goes to see it.

Question: But Vermeer had consummated with his subjects in the past?

Webber: Uh— Van Ruijven had, I think. I think Van Ruijven is the person that we intended to hint at having had some dodgy business. We wanted Vermeer to be completely—You know, he's tempted—he's almost tempted beyond endurance. Actually, what I think that he's doing is that the painting—his art—is more important to him, actually, than his sex life. He's using all that sexual energy to put into the painting. If he had walked into that closet when she's taking her cap off, the painting would be over. It's the building up, the yearning that he was using as an artist. Also, knowing the way she was looking at him, he knew that he'd get a certain intensity in the portrait. We wanted to paint a picture of a man who cares about his art above all.

Question: We must have a word about Colin Firth. Women love him, but for anguish and torment—why did you go with him?

Webber: Because he's a great actor. Listen, I didn't really know that he was such a heartthrob until afterwards, to tell you the truth. I have discovered [that] because every time I go to a Q&A, I stand up, and I get two questions for me, and then the third question is [in a high-pitched voice], “Where's Colin? Where's Colin?” So, I understand that people want to see him rather than me, and I don't blame them. He's a great actor. He understands reserve. He's very good to work with. He's not got movie star [attitude] at all. He's very straight up. He brings a tenderness to the role. That's an important thing, because it's important that Vermeer sees something special in this girl, and falls for her because of that. Rather than he just sees her, and thinks, “Schwing!” and that's it. I think Colin's one of the few actors who is convincing in that way. I think that's one of the reasons that women like him so much. He's not just this incredibly hunky character—it seems like he cares. He seems like he understands. I think that's what it's about.

Question: He's introspective, and it comes through on the screen.

Webber: I think he can do mystery as well. He's not scared about doing less. That's a good thing.

Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth
Girl with a Pearl Earring: The ear-piercing scene.

Question: Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

Webber: Do I have a favorite scene? The ear piercing scene. It was the one that first attracted me to the film, because it has for me all the elements—and also because it worked. I was really worried about whether it would work or not. There's a strange mixture of tenderness and cruelty—I find it interesting and complex, on a number of levels. And I think Scarlett's performance is magnificent. Especially that moment—which was the fourth take—of the close-up where the tear rolls down her cheek. Every time I see it, I'm just blown away.

Question: Is there a painting that does it for you in particular?

Webber: You mean amongst Vermeer's work, or generally? A Vermeer painting, there's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. That's in Rijksmuseum [in Amsterdam], which is one of my favorite paintings ever. But I've got a very wide taste in art. I like Russian icon painters. I like Salvador Dali. It's like music. Sometimes you want to hear Led Zeppelin, and sometimes you want to hear Stravinsky. It just depends.

Question: Are you a collector?

Webber: No! Would I had the money! I collect postage stamps. That's the only thing I can afford to collect! I hope in five years' time. In five years I hope to say, “Yes, I specialize in Gustav Dore first editions.”

Question: Can you talk about the last scene when the camera pans Vermeer's actual painting of the girl?

Webber: Yes. It's self-explanatory. I wanted to actually make people look at a painting. We don't look at paintings that much. We glance at them. There are some of us who do, who go to galleries and stuff. And I thought, “Right. I've got the audience there. I've had them for an hour and half. Now is an opportunity to really make them look. Look at that painting!” Also, I hoped and believed that people would look at it in a very different way. What would have been an interesting experiment, is to show the painting at the beginning of the film, and then at the end of film. But it would have been too much like a pretentious formal experiment. I hope that when people look at it, it's as if—if they know it, they're seeing it with fresh eyes, and if they don't know it, they're getting an amazing artistic experience, because they're carrying with them the emotion of the film. They've understood the girl's journey; they've understood all the different elements that go to create the painting; they understand the role of the patron, the role of money. They understand the intensity of the emotional traffic that might happen between a painter and a sitter. It just seemed to me the only real, true, proper fulfilling ending of the film. And it kind of tickled my fancy I suppose. I did ring up my art history tutor and say, “There's a good few thousand people who I forced to sit and stare at a painting for a minute and half.” That kind of tickled my fancy.

Question: They actually allowed you to come in and shoot the painting?

Webber: No. The gallery made a high resolution still, and we then shot it on a rostrum camera. Because there's also practical problems. It would have been an absolute nightmare. It wouldn't have been as good an image, to tell you the truth. To do that properly, we would have had to get a motion control rig in there, all sorts of practical problems. So we went the easy route, but it's just as effective I think. That's a very good rendering of the painting, the one that we used.

Question: Do you always have this much energy?

Webber: Yeah! [laughs] It kind of goes with the territory. You should see me at nine o'clock in the morning. I'm terrible then. I've been worn down by now. Yeah, it's part of what makes me able to do the job. Also, this is my first film. I'm not a jaded old hack yet. Maybe again when you come and see me in five year's time, I'll have my art collection, I'll be here with a big cigar. But, it's really exciting. It's really exciting when you do a piece of work, and people like it, and it gets noticed. I could be sitting at home on my couch in England, and not have distribution for this film, and be miserable. Despite the fact that it can be hard—I've been on more flights in the last months than I've been in the last three years—it's all for a good cause. So, I'll have energy until the film comes out. And then I'll wait with bated breath to see how well it does.

Question: Do you know what you're working on next?

Webber: No. Not yet. The nice thing about this is that there's a few people that have now noticed me as a filmmaker, so I seem to have emerged from the relative obscurity of TV. I'll tell you what, it will be very different. It will be full of dialogue, it will be noisy, it will be contemporary, it will probably be violent, it will just be completely the opposite, because I don't want people to pigeonhole me.

[Read the AboutFilm review of Girl with a Pearl Earring]

[Read the AboutFilm profile & interview with star Colin Firth]

[Read the AboutFilm profile & interview with star Scarlett Johansson]

Feature and Interview © January 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

Related Materials:  

  Talk about this movie on the AboutFilmBoards
  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page