Girl with a Pearl Earring
A 2003 NicksFlickPicks Honoree in Four Categories!
Director: Peter Webber. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Essie Davis, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Joanna Scanlan, Alakina Mann, Geoff Bell, Gabrielle Reidy, Chris McHallem. Screenplay: Olivia Hetreed (based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier).

Two close friends of mine recently moved into a new apartment, at which time they na´vely went shopping for white paint. Do you know how many paint colors exist in the world that laypersons, fools that we are, might call "white"? This couple came home with pails of Minced Onion and Lemon Chiffon; it remains an open challenge to all of their visitors to try and detect the difference.

Griet, the heroine of Peter Webber's film Girl with a Pearl Earring, is mincing an onion in the opening shot. Have minced onions always been code for exquisite chromatic sensitivity? (Certainly the terse, hardscrabble Griet seems like more of a Minced Onion gal than a Lemon Chiffon type.) In Tracy Chevalier's novel, set in Delft, Holland, in the mid-17th century, the painter Johannes Vermeer arrives into this scene and notices how strictly, if unconsciously, Griet has divided the vegetables for her stew by color and texture. The impression he thus derives of Griet makes him all the more eager for a transaction which, in any case, has already been coordinated between his household and hers, though no one has bothered to tell Griet—namely, that she, a 16-year-old girl, is to serve as a maid and domestic servant at the Vermeers' home, at least while Catharina Vermeer (Essie Davis) is pregnant with the couple's fifth child, and the introverted, unrushable artist has completed the painting that will hopefully keep his growing brood in bread and shelter. Griet's artistic perception is a plus, but it's not the basis of her hiring. Nor is this a sexual predation disguised as something else. This agreement is about need, in both directions: the Vermeers aren't going to make it without more help, even though they can hardly afford it; Griet's family, impoverished ever since her tile-maker father was blinded in a kiln explosion, isn't going to survive without the extra income from her labor, pittance that it is.

All of this exposition gets sliced pretty thin in Webber's adaptation (there I go with those onion metaphors again!). Viewers new to the material may feel a little cheated out of narrative context, but this actually registered to me that Webber and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, both virtual rookies to the scene of mass-market filmmaking, have brought a shrewd, discerning sensibility to this adaptation—and indeed, without much fanfare, Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of the smartest and least cluttered of all the holiday season's new films, not to mention one of the most well-acted and visually sumptuous. The film's creators are much less interested in narrative convolution than Chevalier was, often to her own detriment. The novel, though written in a voice that always sounds jarringly modern (and a little preciously lyrical, with voices that sound like cinammon smells and nonsense like that), is also overburdened with lots of secondary characters, storytelling curlicues, and governing oppositions (Protestantism vs. Catholicism, painting vs. tile-making) that are appropriate to the period and setting but under-realized within the literary terms of the project.

Webber and Hetreed seem to have absorbed Vermeer's key insight that framing, illumination, and point of view are everything; his paintings are those of an architect, not a false ornamenter, and the film, though quite lovely to look at, has the same foundation. The tantalizing conceit behind Girl with a Pearl Earring is to use that infamous portrait as a real-life Rosebud, a puzzle-piece to who knows what mystery. Art historians immediately perceive the unlikeliness of a major painter rendering an anonymous servant girl with such a fine piece of jewelry on her ear. Who could such a girl have been? What status must she have had in Vermeer's life to appear this way to him, to sit this long in front of him—and, if the earring patently isn't hers, than whose is it?

Again, the erotomania of our own age, the notion that sexuality, either expressed or repressed, must be the key to all mythologies, probably leads us to expect a sexual answer to these questions. Certainly the material is not uninterested in a kind of erotic rivalry: the plot eventually reveals the earring to be Catharina's, purloined for the painting without the wife's knowledge, and sparking enormous jealousy and matrimonial outrage when Catharina finally sees the finished canvas. Since the painting in fact completes a long period of Griet serving as Vermeer's secret apprentice, and since she is patently as drawn to his charisma as he is fixated on her unique beauty, and since the painting itself is described here as a forced commission for the lecherous patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who wants a painting of this rare girl whose body he hasn't been able to possess...since all of these things are true, the force of erotic longing and sexual commerce is strongly felt at several levels of the film.

Still, if the distinction doesn't seem too fine, it is the fact of commerce itself, not sexual commerce in particular, that is the grounding territory of all that happens in Girl with a Pearl Earring—or, more precisely said, an ironic contrast between the empyrean beauty of light, angles, and colors and the rigid networks of power, finance, and social expectation in which beauty is forced to navigate, often at enormous cost, sometimes culminating in devastating betrayal. As modern readers and viewers, we have become quite conditioned to see all kinds of period stories as fables of forbidden romance or suppressed passion. The trajectory of Chevalier's plot, especially as it has now been transfered to a medium where we can see Vermeer's rapturous painting afresh (though not at the moment we expect to), makes it very tempting to see the eponymous image as a desirous painter's valentine to a panting, idealized love object. In fact, the film adds a new affective wrinkle here. Scarlett Johansson is as close a visual likeness to Vermeer's subject as the casting trawlers were likely to find, but the painted face is even more poignantly expressive than hers is; one feels that the film's Vermeer has flattered her a little with this beautiful, haunting version of herself. On the other end of the artistic spectrum, the hilariously crude lobby poster for Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which Colin Firth's byronic profile has been inserted over Johansson's shoulder in a slightly dérobée facsimile of the painting only stokes the idea that this movie is another garden-variety hothouse bloom in the reimagined, resensualized cinematic past.

Thank goodness the film isn't structured or skewed this way. By the climactic moments when we see Vermeer dressing and arranging his model, and even later when we actually see the completed painting, what the movie has allowed us to see is not an emblem of romance but a severe, discomfiting palimpsest of compromises and contradictions that have produced the painting and that necessarily coexist with it. This image "means" a lot of things. It means Griet has been turned into a surface, a commodity, with an especially odious buyer. It means the realities and feelings of her life have been exalted in a sublime image, but will also be lost, unknown, in the silence of that sublimity. It means she will known in several social circles, from the condescending aristocracy to the gossiping servants to her own family, as either a thief or a harlequin (or both). It means Vermeer, a master in every sense, who may or may not have any choice, is selling out her reputation and inevitably sacrificing her job in order to earn money for a family he doesn't like. Griet has been vanquished; then again, she has Vermeer's esteem and admiration, and his wife knows it, too. The remarkable Essie Davis gives a brilliantly spooky, highly neurotic performance throughout the picture, but she erupts into Miranda Richardson levels of furious indignation when Girl with a Pearl Earring is unveiled. Catharina knows she never could have inspired such a pristine artistic tribute from her husband. We know that part of the reason why Vermeer views Griet with such fascination is her intuitive grasp not just of his paintings but of the conditions that create them. She hesitates to wash his windows out of fear that the light will alter; she boldly removes a chair from a still-life assortment he is painting because she knows it skews the composition. That a servant girl—not educated, not a man, not experienced—should grasp these things is even more mysterious to Vermeer than his own sense of art. He can't figure her out.

So who is really under whose sway? Vermeer may have ruined Griet, and she cannot save herself, but his own reputation, his own ability, is dependent on her. Catharina can banish Griet, but she does so because she knows the girl has defeated her. Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), Catharina's mother, who lives in the same household and employs her own servants, is both a helpful accomplice to Vermeer's plans and a stone-faced opportunist sitting in judgment. Griet is at different times in this movie a servant, a peer, a rival, a victim, a muse, a target, and an ideal. Vermeer is saved from ruin but also deeply humiliated; he eventually dies an early death, leaving cryptic bequeathals, and indeed the facts of his own life have been almost as lost to history as those of his docile model. In creating this extraordinarily complex interplay of power and paradoxical authority, Girl with a Pearl Earring stages almost every scene as a tense stand-off between varying opponents, who alternately emerge as victors and sacrifices depending on the situation and the relevant criteria of the moment. By reproducing Vermeer's own aesthetic, with its odd combination of close, compassionate detail and rigid, highly deterministic, and sometimes surreptitious sightlines, Webber and his brilliant cinematographer Eduardo Serra (The Wings of the Dove, Unbreakable) are able to communicate all of these shifting balances and advantages without much recourse to dialogue. This also relieves the movie of compiling narrative incidents or over-belaboring obvious characters (the helpless, horny suitor Pieter, the devilish child Cornelia). Most of what we need to know about a given character at a given moment is limpidly expressed through tonalities of color, ranges of camera distance, and angles of view. And it goes without saying, given both Vermeer's influence and Serra's track record, that the images are gorgeous, bold in their chiaroscuro and opalescent, almost palpably cold where they are illumined.

Webber and Serra are careful, however, not to frame or light all of the scenes the way Vermeer would have done. The story is clearly Griet's even more than it is Vermeer's; his perspective is not allowed to dominate the picture, and besides, it is a key story point that "his" perspective is one that comes naturally to her, too, in many respects. Several shots in Girl with a Pearl Earring cite other Renaissance painters—the passing of a paint jar between Griet and Vermeer is, perhaps incongruously, straight out of Michelangelo—and the different social environs through which Griet passes (the studio, the belowstairs, the meat market, alleyways) all have their own touchstones of color and texture. The work of the editor, Kate Evans, is critical here, too. This is not the kind of movie where the architecture of the house becomes altogether clear as the film continues. Relations between rooms are often nebulous, and the exteriors are totally unlocalized. The viewer's perpetual sense is not quite of dislocation, but of extreme individuation: the banquet hall is simply a different galaxy than, say, the studio. Entirely different characters are privileged; entirely different values are in place. Nothing in Griet's world passes smoothly from moment to moment, or room to room; the broken montage never lets us forget it.

Within such a smartly, cogently conceived visual regime, much of the story's truth has already been established before the actors even arrive to it, and yet their strong contributions should not be passed over. Not every performance is a marvel: Parfitt is largely a caricature, and Firth remains a serviceable actor who doesn't really sustain much attention. He also gets stuck with some of Girl's few scenes that drown in cliché, such as the painter's tempestuous, totally uncharacteristic thrash through his household in pursuit of a stolen comb. Firth lashes himself to every old conceit of the fiery, stormy artist in this scene, but the screenplay makes him do it; he simply isn't an expert enough actor to figure out how to fold the outer reaches of the script's characterization into a plausible, integrated performance.

Then again, no one in the cast is bad, and several performers are excitingly good. Johansson, ideally cast as Griet, takes a big step forward here, her low voice and mature face offering complex contrasts with her frenzied, darting eyes and diffident postures. A much more obviously intriguing performer than Firth, Johannson has nonetheless had a bothersome proclivity lately toward films that are rather complacent and over-confident about their sophistication (see Lost in Translation, Ghost World, The Man Who Wasn't There). It's become a cliché in its own right that characters with little dialogue automatically liberate an actor to discover new physical and soulful expressivities. But Johansson really delivers on that kind of promise here. She didn't have much dialogue in Lost in Translation, either, but instead of mooning about looking at skylines, her Griet is a constant engine of productive motion who grows highly anxious, darting like a hummingbird, whenever she is stalled by an employer, an admirer, a fellow feeler. It is this quality of Johansson's performance, bordering on pure terror, that saves some risky dramaturgical scenes, like the one where Vermeer introduces her to a camera obscura, conveniently introduced into the house (by Antony van Leeuwenhoek!) so that he may better study the objects beyond his easel.

I suppose there is a certain quality of bourgeois polish that never quite vanishes from Webber's film. One is conscious at moments that the movie is never quite as fierce or as messy as it might be, even when Griet and the other maids are plunging their hands into scalding laundry or slapping fatty, dubious-looking cuts of meat into lumpy mounds before a belching oven. Occasionally, Webber is too generous to his performers and production designers, cutting to some fabulously old pestle Firth has been given to crush his dyes or to some menial domestic skill in which Johansson has been punctiliously trained somewhere outside her trailer. But these are momentary cracks in a historical diorama that is often quite enveloping (thanks, too, to Alexandre Desplat's rolling, unifying score). And besides, Girl with a Pearl Earring has the added distinction of finding the proper middle register between romance and realism. Many films of its ilk—I remembered Sandra Goldbacher's The Governess, where Minnie Driver secretly, scandalously helped Tom Wilkinson invent the science of photography—get too tangled up in the passionate murmurs of the characters' hearts, which oddly makes those characters seem even less real and their problems less urgent. Girl with a Pearl Earring always feels like a fantasy, a speculation. It is not the acme of historical realism but has not pretended to be. It poses no revolutions to its medium of the kind Vermeer posed to his, but can we possibly expect it to? As a hard-edged, well-wrought vision of the tense negotiations between artist and muse, art and life, reality and transcendence, Girl with a Pearl Earring is an admirable and memorable success. It haunts you. B+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Cinematography: Eduardo Serra
Best Art Direction: Ben Van Os; Cecile Heideman
Best Costume Design: Dien van Straalen

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Scarlett Johansson
Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Cinematography
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking
European Film Awards: Best Cinematography

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