There are only about three dozen known paintings by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, but on the basis of that small body of work the painter is fervently admired by a wide public. A 1996 exhibition of twenty-four of the paintings (the first ever retrospective of his work) at the National Gallery drew huge crowds of art lovers who waited in long lines in the wintry cold of Washington for the opportunity to see these pictures of ordinary people in the city of Delft three centuries ago.
A definitive explanation of what it is about these paintings that it so captivating will be left to the art critics, but surely the elements include the rich colors, the exquisite rendering of light in which his subjects are placed, a psychological depth to the portraiture and a pervasive sense of mystery. All of these elements are present in "Girl with a Pearl Earring," a portrait of an unknown subject painted in the 1660’s. Inspired by this portrait,Tracy Chevalier created a novel of the imagination that brings the girl to life, placingher as a servant in Vermeer’s household. From her novel, screenwriter Olivia Hetreed and director Peter Webber, in his feature film debut, have made a film that is elegant in concept, in restraint, and in the sheer beauty of its representation of Vermeer’s world.
The girl, 17-year-old Griet (Scarlett Johansson), is confronted with Vermeer’s petulant, jealous wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), his domineering mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), and his spiteful 12-year-old daughter, Cornelia (Alakina Mann). While Griet is illiterate, she is intelligent and observant. Cleaning Vermeer’s studio puts her in contact with the master who responds to her interest by teaching her about the complexities of light and color. He enlists her to mix his paints from the various sources of pigment. Her quick comprehension (and admiration) appeal to him; her perception through him of the possibilities of art draw her to him. A palpable sexual tension grows between them, accelerating when she becomes his model. The smallest acts seem ripe with intimacy–the touch of a hand, the cascade of her curls freed from the restrictive cap worn by the women of the time. When has the piercing of an ear been an act so ripe with sublimation?
Griet must also deal with Vermeer’s patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), whose commissions support the Vermeer household and whose presumptions of sexual privilege with a servant place the girl in a vulnerable position. Yet Griet’s frustrated suitor, the butcher Pieter (Cillian Murphy), sees clearly that it is Vermeer and not Van Ruijven with whom he is competing.
Webber brilliantly foregrounds these well-wrought characterizations against the background of life in Delft at the time. Griet comes from the puritanical Protestant working class, while the Vermeers are from the Catholic haute bourgeoisie. Economic survival is a tenuous matter: Greit is forced into a servant’s position by the disability of her artisan father. Once comfortable neighbors of the Vermeers find themselves evicted from their home in bankruptcy, a condition that the Vermeers slip all too close to due to Vermeer’s painfully slow output of paintings.
There are vivid market scenes, a country landscape, chilling snow in the winter cityscape. Webber and his cinematographer, Eduardo Serra (The Flower of Evil, Unbreakable), frame each shot as if consciously aware that they are treading in the territory of a great artist. They use filters which give some shots a wash of yellow-green or Delft blue. Interior lighting consciously emulates that of the paintings and the period: the limited shafts of daylight through windows, the overall shadowy dark of interiors, the glow of candlelight on a lavishly set banquet table. Visually, The Girl with a Pearl Earring pays respect and filmic tribute to the painter whose work inspired it.
The acting by the entire cast is finely tuned ensemble work; with a minimum of dialogue they are able to flesh out the roles and give them dimension beyond the obvious. Johannson (Lost in Translation, Ghost World) is especially remarkable in the transparency of her performance, conveying Griet’s intelligence, vulnerability, and pluckiness. The sense of wonder that she expresses as she begins to grasp the power of art carries the energy and promise of a breakthrough into unanticipated new realms.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a superb achievement, astounding for a first film. Webber draws first rate performances from his cast, creates for them the period environment, imbuing it with beauty, and, finally, has the discipline to edit out the extraneous footage; there’s not a wasted frame in the film.