Girl With a Pearl Earring
|Colin Firth||Jan Vermeer|
|Tom Wilkinson||Van Ruijven|
If Vermeer had been a cinematographer, this is the movie he would have shot. Through the lens of his surrogate Eduardo Serra (The Widow of St. Pierre), the rooms of the Vermeer studio in 17th century Delft are bathed in a pearlescent light that filters in from the street, there is a soft-edged geometry to the shadowy hallways and furnishings and the checkerboard tiles of the floors, and people occupy space in the service of composition and light. It is one of the most hypnotically, entrancingly visual films you will ever see. In this adaptation of the best-seller by Tracy Chevalier, Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is the daughter of a tile painter whose blindness has put him out of work and under the poverty line. She is sent off by her family to be a maid in the home of the painter Jan Vermeer (Colin Firth), an artist whose painstakingly slow output in the studio is offset by a prolificacy in the marriage bed. His wife Catharina (Essie Davis) is forever pregnant; by the end of his short life (1632-75) Vermeer had sired eleven children.
Griet is assigned the responsibility of cleaning the master's studio. "Disturb nothing," she is warned. "Leave everything as it is." But Griet is an intelligent, observant girl. On her first day on the job she asks whether she should wash the windows - "It may change the light." She may be illiterate, but she understands Vermeer's painting and his artistic vision better than anyone else around him, and the discerning Vermeer is not long in noticing this. He solicits her comments on his work, he instructs her in ways of seeing, he educates her in optics, he shows her how to mix his paints. Eventually Griet carries her involvement in his artistic life a bit farther than prudence would dictate. One afternoon when she is alone in the studio she takes exception to a chair in a composition the master is painting, and moves it. The next day she comes in and checks the canvas. Vermeer has painted out the offending chair. We are left to wonder whether this is a one-time intervention, or whether Griet becomes a full-fledged junior partner in the creative process.
Her physical beauty does not go unremarked. It raises the hackles of Catharina, and it inspires the enmity of the spiteful oldest daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann), who spends much of her time lurking and spying and trying to get Griet into trouble. It also attracts the attention of Vermeer's chief patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), a calculating fellow who presses his attentions upon her in the most unsubtle and inartistic of ways. When his attempt at rape is interrupted, he settles on commissioning a portrait by Vermeer of the maddeningly desirable wench. It is a likeness that will eventually be accessorized with a pearl earring.
Everyone in this story serves a purpose and fills a slot. Vermeer represents art, noble and honorable and capable of great suffering to preserve its purity. Van Ruijven is commerce, crass and canny, and dedicated to the proposition that honor and nobility rate a poor second to taking what one wants. Catharina is the myopic public, indifferent to the genius being produced under her nose, more interested in jewelry than art. Her mother (Judy Parfitt) is sheer practicality - rent must be paid, eleven little mouths must be fed and their bodies clothed, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to nudge the master into turning out more masterpieces to keep the money coming in. If this means making certain accommodations with morality and self-respect, this is a bargain she is willing to make.
Griet is by far the most interesting character in the piece, and Johansson plays her with an analytic and absorbing intelligence. She is a girl from the world of the ordinary, standing on tiptoe to peer over the transom into the world of the rare. Her sweetheart Pieter (Cillian Murphy) is a butcher's apprentice, a handsome and likeable fellow, and he's considered quite a catch for a girl in Griet's circumstances. After Vermeer has opened her eyes to the subtlety of colors in the clouds, Griet stands in a window gazing up at them. "Thinkin' about your butcher boy ?" the cook (Joanna Scanlan) teases with a lewd snicker. It's a moment that captures the chasm between the two worlds Griet is trying to straddle.
As achingly beautiful as this movie is visually, it is saddled with a ponderousness of narrative. Just as cinematographer Serra wraps his compositions in light, director Peter Webber surrounds his subjects in silence. There's a lot of soulful staring, a lot of syrupy slow movement, a lot of agonized containment that goes above and beyond the call of duty. It is intended to convey the searing, unconsummated passion between master and maid, in a world where an ear is more than just an ear, and the piercing of it carries erotic implications. But the arty slowness throws a wet blanket on the proceedings. Johansson sometimes kicks it off, and those moments are fresh and welcome, but Firth too often plays as if he was being fined for every errant show of natural feeling.
© Text 2004 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be