Girl with the Pearl Earring

Laura Clifford 
Girl with the Pearl Earring
Robin Clifford 
In the city of Delft in 1665, teenaged Griet (Scarlett Johansson, "Lost in Translation") must leave her family and go to work when her tile painter father is blinded in a fire.  She becomes a maid under the direction of Tanneke (Joanna Scanlan) in the home of painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth, "What a Girl Wants").  She keeps to herself, but when a domestic servant's squabble results in her sleeping quarters being moved from the basement to the attic, it is arranged that she should clean Vermeer's studio, an enclave not even his wife is allowed into, as she must go through it to enter the rest of the household.  Through no action of her own, the unassuming maid is now under Catharina Vermeer's (Essie Davis, "The Matrix Reloaded") scrutiny.

British television director Peter Webber makes a feature debut that is both subtle and strong bringing Tracy Chevalier's best seller (adapted by Olivia Hetreed) to the screen. In collaboration with cinematographer Eduardo Serra ("The Widow of Saint Pierre"), who won a Jury award at the San Sebastian film festival for his work and should be an Oscar front runner, Webber perfectly captures the life of an elusive artist trapped in the politics of a household run by three generations of women.

Small events rachet up the tension between mistress and maid.  An elaborate feast is prepared to celebrate both the birth of the Vermeer's latest child and the unveiling of the most recent commissioned painting for benefactor Van Ruijven (a miscast Tom Wilkinson, "In the Bedroom"). Van Ruijven announces that his next commission will go to Rembrandt, alarming Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt, "Dolores Clairborne"), Vermeer's mother-in-law and household financier, but he also expresses an interest in being painted with their new, pretty maid.  Remarking on Vermeer's secretive working style, he salaciously remarks to Catharina 'I have a mind to go up there one day and surprise him in the act.'

When Griet asks Catharina and Maria if she should wash the windows in the studio, they wonder why she's even asked.  'It's just that it may change the light,' the girl replies, and the two women wonder that the girl would think of such a thing.  It is the artist's eye in the girl that draws the attention of Vermeer himself, and soon he entrusts the girl with mixing his paints, shows her his camera obscura, and draws out of her that the clouds outside are not white, but yellow, red and gray.  When one of Catharina's hair combs is stolen, Griet is charged.  She boldly asks Vermeer for help and he unexpectedly searches the house, finding the comb under the pillow of his daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann, "The Others"), a girl who sees much and says little.  Catharina is less than appeased, though, and Griet's days are numbered.

Webber builds up the sexual tension between Griet and Vermeer with looks, acknowledgements of understanding that pass between the two.  He stages one of the sexiest scenes in cinema history with two fully clothed people standing yards apart when Vermeer illicitly gazes at Griet, her hair exposed (Griet modestly keeps hair covered beneath a cap and Johansson may never look as stunning on film again as she does here).  The two only have physical contact twice - when their fingers brush together as they both mix paint and when Vermeer pierces Griet's ear in preparation for the famous painting, a metaphor for her deflowering.

Firth and Johansson are perfectly paired.  He exudes repressed passion with his dark eyes and brooding looks, yet he is hamstrung by his manipulative mother-in-law and the demands of his wife so the passion is mixed sharply with frustration of many natures.  Johansson expresses intelligent inquisitiveness with her eyes.  Physically she shrinks herself inward so as not to attract attention, except when her mind has been engaged and she forgets herself.

The rest of the household is also perfectly cast.  Parfitt is a standout as the wily player who puts commerce before her daughter, complicit in the use of Catharina's earrings for Van Ruijven's painting of Griet even though she knows the act will cause a rift in the household.  Davis nicely handles the pretty but perpetually petulant wife trying to maintain her husband's interest. Outside of the household, however, casting is off.  Wilkinson gives Van Ruijven's leering his all, but the role called for someone fatter, more florid.  Cillian Murphy ("28 Days") as Pieter, the butcher's son who woos Griet, is, frankly, prettier than his costar.  The role would have been better served by someone more brutishly handsome.

Hetreed's adaptation maintains focus on the book's intrigues, yet she keeps artistic details that bring Vermeer's world to life.  We learn, for example, that India yellow was produced from sacred cows who only ate mango leaves ('You've glazed my wife in dried piss!' Van Ruijven heartily exclaims).  Another excellent sequence, where Griet removes a chair from Vermeer's arrangement, indicates an artistic collaboration between the two based upon a historic fact (that particular painting has been x-rayed, revealing that Vermeer had painted over a chair).

The recreation of Vermeer's household visually is astounding.  Serra painstakingly recreated scenes from the artist's work and shot using natural light.  When the titular painting itself is finally staged, it is simply breathtaking.  (All the paintings shown in the film are replicas, except for this one, which is shown at the end of the film in a slow zoom from the blob of white that creates the gleam on the pearl earring.)

"Girl with the Pearl Earring" is one of the best film's ever made about art made richer with its speculative interior drama.


First timer director Peter Webber, with veteran lenser Eduardo Serra, has created the most visually beautiful entry in the San Sebastian Film Festival with his fictional telling of the human interaction that led to Dutch art master Johannes Vermeer’s most famous work, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

This period piece, based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel and set in Delft, Holland in 1665, tells of young Griet (Scarlett Johannson), hired as a maid into the household of the famous artist, Vermeer (Colin Firth). The girl, assigned to clean her employer’s work area, shows an uncanny sense of light and color and Vermeer teaches her about his art. The artiste’s mother-in-law recognizes the spark that Griet ignites in Johannes and she encourages the relationship in hope of increasing his meager output and, as such, the family’s fortune. Vermeer’s wife is not quite so taken with the idea.

The machinations of the patronage system, personified by the wicked Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), dictate Vermeer’s life and the sponsor manipulates things so that Griet is deigned to be the secret subject of the artist. What cost this imposes on Vermeer’s wife, his children and, most of all, Griet, is what Webber and his team examine and present.

While “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is a solid first entry for its director it is, foremost, a film of stunning visual treatment. Eduardo Serra’s lens uncannily duplicates the artistic work of Vermeer, making the film’s many beautiful scenes take on the look and texture of paintings. Serra also succeeds in making Scarlett Johannson as beautiful as she ever could be – the young actress looks incredibly like the maid in the original work.

“Girl” is a satisfying film, with Olivia Hetreed adapting the fictional work by Tracy Chevalier, and benefits from its realistic feeling production design. The talented cast do a fine job in imbuing dimension to their characters with only Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy, as the butcher boy and Griet’s love interest, feeling false in their roles.

It is not often that you see a film that has the look of a moving painting. The beautifully rendered “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is such a film and I give it an A-. 

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