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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.

There's meticulous detail on the DVD; even the menus complement the rich mood of the film. There are two excellent commentaries - one from the author/screenwriter, the other from director Peter Webber and producer Andy Paterson, who discuss fascinating details about how effects were achieved, the cast and the project objectives. They recall the first time they met Scarlett Johansson, in New York's Paramount Hotel, where they 'learned as much as you could possibly hope to learn about a teenager who has been an actress since the age of 4.' She had not read the script at that stage and Webber and Paterson tried to imagine her in period dress. There were about 150 other hopefuls who auditioned for the coveted role. The big question was whether or not these two world class actors would have chemistry together - 'the sparks you see are really there.'

In Anatomy of a Scene, we hear about how the 17th century banquet scene was set up. In order for the lighting to appear as though it was coming from flickering candle light, cinematographer Eduardo Serra talks about the soft lights used to create the illusion. Serra is a master, says Webber.
There is also a making of featurette, plus deleted scenes with optional commentary. This is a highly recommended DVD for the discerning filmlover.

Published October 7, 2004

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CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan, Alakina Mann, David Morrissey, Anna Popplewell, Anas Nepper\

DIRECTOR: Peter Webber

SCRIPT: Olivia Hetreed (novel by Tracy Chevalier)

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

PRESENTATION: widescreen

SPECIAL FEATURES: audio commentary, making of featurette, deleted scenes (with optional commentary), anatomy of a scene, trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: October 7, 2004

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