GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING
Griet (Scarlett Johansson) the young daughter of a poor family in 17th century Delft, is sent to work as a housemaid for the family of painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth), who lives by getting painting commissions from his patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). Griet’s arrival begins to unsettle the emotional balance of the family, and when Van Ruijven secretly demands that Vermeer paint her portrait for his private and very personal collection, Vermeer is inspired - but knows how badly his pregnant wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), will take it; he knows she can tell how drawn he is towards this young peasant girl with the vulnerable eyes and knowing smile.
Review by Louise Keller:
Reminiscent of an oil painting, filled with meticulous detail and brush strokes filled with promise of unspoken emotions, Girl With A Peal Earring is a beautifully crafted film enticing us into the constrained world of painter Johannes Vermeer. Adapted from Tracy Chevalier’s novel, and set in Holland in the seventeenth century, when artists survived by commissions from benefactors, babies were born in one continuous stream, and life was determined according to the station you were born to, we get a clear sense of what life was like.
Scarlett Johansson’s striking face in close up is haunting, and we understand the fascination that Colin Firth’s Johannes Vermeer holds for Griet. Johansson’s performance is uncluttered and true; her clothes are dowdy, her hair concealed by a severe Dutch bonnet, yet her natural beauty and emotional honesty simply shines from her face. Griet’s relationship with Vermeer evolves naturally, and by the time she is mixing his paints for him, we can sense the electricity in the air.
This was a time when emotions raged through constrained silences, like a tightly drawn corset. Often the silences have greater impact than the dialogue. Moments like the one when Griet and Vermeer’s hands touch for the first time; the scene by the window, when Griet describes the yellow, blue and grey colours of the clouds. Time stands still as we see what Vermeer sees – a beautiful, innocent face in the bloom of youth, head enveloped in a headscarf and porcelain skin with the faintest of blush. The pearl earrings that have such relevance, dangle luminously from her newly pierced ears.
Beautiful cinematography with exquisite lighting showcases each frame like an artistic composition. There’s a sense of awe as Griet enters the studio for the first time, as she is ushered into her new home and workplace. ‘Disturb nothing,’ says Essie Davis’ wife Catharina, but it is obvious, as we see her peer around the door with wide eyes, that she is not privy to her husband’s studio. From the dark intensity of its claustrophobic atmosphere in the Vermeer house, the scenes where Griet and Cillian Murphy’s Pieter stroll by the banks of the canal are a great contrast. ‘Show me your hair,’ begs Pieter, but she refuses, only relenting to tell him its colour. We can smell the silver polish, hear the servants chit-chat and as rivalries and jealousies begin to take hold, life becomes unbearable for Griet. Firth is well cast as the artist in conflict, while Judy Parfitt’s matriach is the Mrs Danvers of the era. (‘You could sell sour milk to cows’ Tom Wilkinson’s Van Ruijven tells Parfitt).
Visually memorable with its detailed production design and with characters you will not forget, Girl with a Pearl Earring is an engrossing drama whose power lies in its cinematic language.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Eduardo Serra stars in this eyeful of 17th century Holland, his lighting just about perfect in every single shot whether interior or exterior, his sense of framing magnificent, his use of camera motion sublime. Rightly, too, considering the subject is Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter whose work often uses light sparingly but to great effect – especially in the painting that prompted the novel on which this film is based. Production design is also up to the task, transporting us into the town of Delft with almost tangible veracity. I thought I could smell the chicken poop on the floor, but I think it was the popcorn.
The opening close ups of a hand chopping and cutting vegetables in the dim kitchen of the Vermeer household signals the intimacy with which the film wants to treat its subject. This holds true for the superficial aspects, certainly, and the imaginary family drama that novelist Tracy Chevalier has created is at once intriguing and pedestrian. It could be a reworked screenplay from a chapter in The Young and the Restless, with its melodrama resting on the insinuation of an innocent young housemaid into the artist’s home and the pregnant wife’s resentment and jealousy, which is echoed by the young daughter. In fact, the story is ostensibly about how Vermeer’s lecherous old patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) manipulated Vermeer into painting Griet (Scarlett Johansson) for his private and personal pleasure, while Vermeer’s infatuation with her created domestic complications.
The script and direction actually focus on Griet, and given Johansson’s exceptionally suitable face, it isn’t surprising. However, the lingering close ups on Johansson limit our access to Vermeer’s true inner self. What we perceive is a rather simplified version of what the talented artist might have been. We are offered frustratingly short glimpses of his heart and soul, while Griet’s are laid bare. Johansson is exquisite, what’s more, not so much plain beautiful but much more interesting, her youth and vulnerability and innate smarts a beguiling mix that never tires us.
Colin Firth’s Vermeer is cloaked in reserve – as Frith is, usually as an Englishman with anal retentive emotions – and his painting passion is reduced to fake eccentricities at first, and then to simply stated genius. We see his brush hit canvas just once, in close up. There are a couple of scenes of him eyeing Griet in painterly consideration, but the drive of his art is not shown. Still, it’s a gorgeously made film and romantics will swoon. But it should have been called Griet.
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GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (G)
(UK / Luxembourg)
CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan, Alakina Mann, David Morrissey, Anna Popplewell, Anaïs Nepper
PRODUCER: Andy Paterson, Anand Tucker
DIRECTOR: Peter Webber
SCRIPT: Olivia Hetreed (novel by Tracy Chevalier)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Eduardo Serra
EDITOR: Kate Evans
MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Ben van Os
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 11, 2004