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GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING(director: Peter Webber; screenwriter: Olivia Hetreed; cinematographer: Eduardo Serra; editor: Kate Evans; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: 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); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Andy Paterson/Anand Tucker; Lions Gate Films; 2003-UK/Luxembourg)
“True to the artist’s vision.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Johannes Vermeer of Delft was one of the most talented 17th century painters in the Dutch Golden Age, though little was known about his life. After his death in 1675 he was forgotten until the 19th century, with many of his paintings lost. He was not rediscovered until the late 19th century. Vermeer created luscious realistic canvases of women and men in seventeenth-century rooms and also some landscapes. Everyday scenes were very popular, as they were recognizable for everybody. ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ which now hangs in the Mauritshuis Museum, in The Hague, in Holland, is characteristic of Vermeer’s later, more mature style. It is thought that the girl in the painting is Vermeer’s youngest daughter, Maria. However, this is often disputed because dates don’t match.

British television filmmaker Peter Webber, in his auspicious debut, bases his film on Tracy Chevaller’s award-winning novel. In Ms. Chevaller’s novel, she has the subject posing be the artist’s new young maid Griet in her fictional account of Vermeer’s masterpiece. The film like the painting doesn’t have a deeper meaning than of similarly depicting the masterpiece’s beauty and innocent grace and muted sublimation. Almost every scene in this carefully constructed period drama seems to be filmed as if it were a drawing by the Dutch master, as the filmmaker’s wily sense of accuracy to detail makes for a perfectly measured film that matches his subject’s metier. The photography is elegant … a rich display of hues, shadowy lines, and dazzling colors. The film serves the artist well as in its simple aim to look at how the artist operates through the innocent girl’s wide-opened eyes, as it remains true to the artist’s vision.

Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast as the obsequious milky-white maid Griet and gives a heartfelt performance that reflects the understanding the great artist saw in his subject. She also looks a lot like the artist’s portrait. Colin Firth is sweeping in his understated but moving portrayal of the trapped artist, Vermeer, in a tumultuous bourgeois household. The artist tries to remain aloof from his haughty but insecure doll-like wife Catharina (Essie Davis) and his calculating mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), the financial head of the household, and his ever-growing brood of rambunctious children, with the nastiest being the 12-year-old Cornelia (Alakina Mann).

Vermeer remains a mysterious figure throughout, just as his bio fails to uncover his true motivations and sense of being. His only escape from his tortured existence is in his darkly lit upstairs corner room where he worked undisturbed and free from the economically troubling times and the everyday wordly problems and from the noisy members of his household.

The film picks up in 1665 where Griet’s austere Calvanist mother and her disabled father secure for the 17-year-old a job as a maid across town, so she can support the family. It’s in the wealthy section of Delft, with the Catholic Vermeer household. The shy Griet is shown doing her chores of scrubbing the floors, washing, cooking, and shopping. On one of her errands, she attracts the butcher’s son Pieter (Cillian Murphy), and a cautious relationship develops that includes a walk in the woods, a sweet kiss and plans for marriage. She also attracts the interest of the reclusive artist, who notices how observant and sensitive and understanding she is of the details in life that also concern him. One of her chores requires her to clean his artist studio, a room no one is allowed to enter, where she’s ordered to not move things without his okay. The artist is so taken with her that he goes out of his way to lecture her about his use of lights and colors and entrusts her to mix his paints. He also makes her his confidante, something he can’t do with anyone else in his family. This growing intimacy gets the jealousy of the senior housemaid (Scanlan) and the ire of his wife, who suspects him of cheating, and the hateful glares from his always spying daughter Cornelia. The latter two react in a vile way to the humble maid, wishing her ill-will.

The artist is so inspired by Griet that he talks the reluctant maid, who has fallen under his spell, to secretly pose in a turban and in his wife’s pearl earrings. The uncanny mother-in-law lets this slide as signs of geld flashes before her materialistic eyes for what the painting might fetch and fails to be concerned about her daughter’s feelings. Vermeer has gained respect as the greatest painter in town, but does not have enough patrons to insure him economic security. Vermeer’s main patron is the wealthy and lecherous Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who agrees to commission the painting of the maid with the understanding that his lustful designs on the innocent girl will go unchecked.

What comes to life in this beautifully realized art film is the smells of city life, contrasting the rich and poor sections, and the class issues and economic woes of the times, as the bustling city where the artist lived all his life is admirably observed by the atmospheric photography of Eduardo Serra.

It’s a film that captures the little details, like a look that the always brooding Vermeer gives Griet that in its silence says everything he’s thinking and conveys on her part repressed sexual desires. These little arty details successfully fight off a melodramatic tale involving Griet blending into a household where she doesn’t fit, fighting off a smarmy van Ruijven, coming to terms with what sexual feelings Vermeer awakened in her, and deciding how she feels about pretty nice boy Pieter and the familiar simple life he promises her. I fell under the spell of the film as an eye-opening painting experience and got overwhelmed by all the little things it did so stunningly well to take me into Vermeer’s paintings, that I took the trite story to be only as important as the frame is to a picture and didn’t let its pulp romantic story stop me from buying into this satisfyingly breathtaking picture.

REVIEWED ON 11/28/2003 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”