Girl with a Pearl Earring
Girl with a Pearl Earring

UK/Luxembourg, 2003. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes.

Cast: Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wikinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Alakina Mann
Writer: Olivia Hetreed, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier
Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography: Eduardo Serra
Producers: Andy Paterson and Anand Tucker
Director: Peter Webber


Grade: A Review by Erika Hernandez

M mmmmm.

I had generally lost faith in films of late (Whale Rider being praised as an empowering “cultural” piece; the Independent Film Machine edging its way right into the mainstream; the downward spiral of The Matrices). However, when I was transported into freezing, 17 th Century Holland—and did not want to leave—I became a believer again. Girl with a Pearl Earring accomplishes a rare, if not impossible feat. It seizes you so strongly, you forget whether or not you smoke. It leaves you vulnerable, warm, reflective, and altogether grateful for its experience.

You might understandably ask, “What subject matter could possibly breathe life into this almost stagnant setting? War? Famine? Disease? Murder?” Curiously enough, no, no, no, and no. Girl with a Pearl Earring (based on Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel) speculates upon the mystery behind the 1665/6 portrait of the same title, painted by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer. Not unlike DaVinci's Mona Lisa, Vermeer's unknown subject bears a curiously hypnotic gaze. She presents more questions than answers. She is stoic, yet full of expression. Some say that the girl in Vermeer's most famous piece might have been one of his many daughters. Art historians have since dismissed this notion; Vermeer's eldest daughter, Maria, was only eleven years old at the time of the sitting. Herein lies the mystery, and herein lies the film. Against a backdrop containing actual details of Vermeer's life, first-time feature director Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earring fictitiously answers the burning questions, “Who is that girl? Why is she looking at us like that?”

Johansson and Firth
Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth in Girl with a Pearl Earring

In the film, the girl is Griet (Scarlett Johansson)—a 17 year-old who secures a job as a maid in the Vermeer household to support her family. (Her father, a tile painter, was recently blinded in a kiln explosion). Because of the dress of the day, Griet's body is almost totally concealed. She is nonetheless beautiful.

Griet's workload is fierce. When she is not battling the harsh weather lugging meat or folding frozen laundry, she is being tormented by “the Master's” bratty children, chief among them Cornelia (Alakina Mann). The women of the house are Vermeer's perpetually pregnant wife, Catharina (Essie Davis) and her mother, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), who doubly functions as Vermeer's business manager. From the start, the two make it painfully clear that Griet's employment is probationary. She is not allowed to speak until spoken to, and especially not allowed to touch anything in the Master's studio. “Disturb nothing; leave all as it is,” she is instructed.

Vermeer's studio is treated (both visually and in the storyline) as sacred. When Griet is finally permitted to clean it, she gingerly eyes his instruments, canvas, and color mixtures. Influenced by her father's work, Griet demonstrates an apt eye for aesthetics. She even relays to Catharina that she is reluctant to clean the studio windows, because it might alter the Master's source of light. When Vermeer (Colin Firth) and Griet are introduced, he immediately sees her as we do. He is first impressed, then enthralled, then fixated. Griet secretly becomes his studio assistant, mixing colors for him in the middle of the night.

Their growing connection is an enormous threat to Vermeer's marriage and family, for it is laden with an intensely restrained, romantic undercurrent. Maria Thins entertains it, however, once she sees that Vermeer is inspired. (Inspired, of course meaning that he works more, and will bring in more money.) Once his most wealthy patron, the brash and smarmy Master van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), commissions Vermeer to paint Griet alone, they must confront their emotions once and for all. The result, of course, is the artist's most famous work.

Scarlett Johansson: The Girl with a Pearl Earring
Scarlett Johansson transforms into Johannes Vermeer's masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Since records yield little information about Vermeer's real life—and even less about his artistic process, Girl with a Pearl Earring could have been a contrived, oversexed, melodramatic piece of dribble. Under Peter Webber's impressive direction, however, it emerges as a fresh, powerful, jewel of a film. The acting is first rate, especially on the part of Johannson. As Griet, she communicates more in a stare than most actors pull off after reciting a tear-filled monologue. Almost every physical move she makes is tentative, which speaks perfectly to Griet's place in the world: unsure, curious, fascinated, and fearful. Firth is versatile as Vermeer—who has to embody perfectionism, repression, love, and weakness—sometimes in one shot.

Because of director of photography Eduardo Serra, Girl with a Pearl Earring is visually epic. Almost every scene looks like a moving painting, which establishes a constant feeling of quiet enchantment. Serra treats the visual climate inside Vermeer's studio very differently, and for good reason. This is, after all the site of the piece's creation. It is where the myth was born, and the girl, immortalized. Serra is well aware of this, and in the studio, color, texture, and light are as prominent as the characters.

The most impressive feature of the film, however, is its use of metaphor and suggestion to advance Vermeer and Griet's forbidden attraction. Their palpable sexual tension is continuously redirected onto and coded as other actions, objects, words, and even colors. It drives you as crazy as they are. It is perfect. The scene in which Griet takes her hair down for the first time so moved the audience with whom I screened the film that it let out an audible sigh. Chalk one up for Subtext.

A portrait painter once described to me that moment when a person's soul or essence is captured onto canvas. “There's really no word for it in the English language,” he said. “Like everything great, you just know when it happens, and since it almost never does, you feel a sort of miracle has occurred.” I immediately recalled his words after viewing Girl with a Pearl Earring, a film that chooses to honor that moment instead of selling it out.

[Read the AboutFilm article & interview with director Peter Webber]

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

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

Review © December 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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