Girl With a Pearl Earring
Directed by Peter Webber. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan, Alakina Mann. (2003, PG-13, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 30, 2004
Lord knows, Girl With a Pearl Earring is a bona fide art movie. It has the finest of pedigrees, being inspired by the famous Vermeer painting of the same title, which in turn inspired Tracy Chevalier’s popular book that offered speculation about the sources of Vermeer’s creativity and the enigma surrounding the identity of the painting’s model. There’s a lot of good material here, and the movie touches on some of these themes without delving into them too much. The implication is that the model for the portrait was also gifted with the undeveloped vision of an artist, but the class structure and sexual conventions of the time prevented a young servant girl from aspiring to a career as an artist. The movie also toys with sex roles in other ways: Vermeer’s mother-in-law wears the figurative pantaloons in the family. Although she is not the breadwinner, she is shown to be the manager behind the artistic genius, she solicits his commissions and handles the household’s money. Little is known for sure about the Dutch artist’s short life, so these hypotheses come as provocative stuff. And the fact that this season’s It Girl, Scarlett Johansson, bears a better-than-striking resemblance to the unknown girl in Vermeer’s picture is icing on the cake. She plays Griet, the servant whose own family fortunes force her to take up residence in the Vermeer household as a servant. Soon, however, her sensitivity to such things as how her mistress’ instructions to clean the windows in the artist’s atelier will alter the available light cause her to be noticed by Vermeer and also stoke the jealousy of his noncomprehending wife. Unfortunately, once first-time director Webber sets all these possibilities in motion, he fails to give them any space to grow. His movie just lies there as static as a two-dimensional painting. Every shot is composed within an inch of its life and scenes constantly overstay their welcome with endless takes of near-wordless empathy between artist and model. As a former editor, we might expect Webber to have a better sense of when to cut, but his instincts fail him completely here. Every shot is an artistic masterpiece and all appropriate kudos must go to cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Yet in filming this movie with such artistic precision, the movie ironically winds up objectifying Griet just as much as any appreciator of the original painting. Ultimately, the light this investigation shines onto the genesis of art remains as mysterious as the quality of light Vermeer captured with his oils.