Girl With A Pearl Earring

Girl With A Pearl Earring


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

This might have been called The Portrait Of The Artist As A Hangdog.

Vermeer (Colin Firth) is surrounded by women, none of whom respect, or comprehend, his work. "They're just paintings," his mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) declares. "Pictures for money. They mean nothing."

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His wife (Essie Davis) is frustrated and spoilt, taking it out on the servants. She has no empathy with what her husband does and won't allow herself to go into his studio after his last model, one of the maids, became pregnant. Her every gesture is an act of revenge, barbed with self pity and accusatory in tone.

He retreats further into this other world, where the capture of light on canvas depends upon how the ingredients are mixed to make the paste that will be used as paint. It is 1665, in Delft, Holland, and Vermeer is utterly dependent on his patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), a lecherous boor with a canny eye for the commercial value of art.

Into this household, so dominated by selfish, mercenary women, comes a young girl, Griet (Scarlett Johansson), whose ailing father is an artist of sorts and so shares with Vermeer an understanding of perspective and composition. As the lowliest servant in the kitchen, she is told by her mistress on the first morning, "Don't speak unless spoken to." As a result, dialogue is sparse and conversation a rarity.

The film is beautiful to look at, the cityscape in winter particularly memorable, and yet remains parochial and small minded. As a moment in a life, all remains hidden beneath a veil of suppressed desire.

Griet asks whether cleaning the windows in the studio will affect the light and, therefore, the artist's work, something the other women have never considered. Although illiterate and unable to express her thoughts, it is obvious that she possesses a vibrant intelligence. Vermeer recognises this, in addition to her beauty, and encourages her to help him with the making of the paints, a preliminary gesture, no doubt, towards an inevitable seduction.

Every detail of food preparation and scullery work is lovingly observed, emphasising the deprivation and discomfort of those who are at beck and call. Griet's involvement, which leads briefly to a kind of courtship, with the butcher's son (Cillian Murphy) has no substance, paying lip service to the concept of a romantic subplot that feels fabricated in order to break the monotony of meaningful silences and snatched glances in the studio upstairs.

Vermeer is shown as a weak man, prone to outbursts of temper, but essentially trapped in a loveless marriage, controlled by a harridan and disliked by his children, whom he ignores. Firth gives one of his brooding, unshaven, devilishly attractive performances, borrowed from romantic fiction, in which the look in his eye and the movement of his hands speaks poetry.

Ultimately, this is Griet's story and Johansson is effortless in her characterisation of a 17th century Dutch girl at the whim of her employers, while shielding emotion for safety of her heart. The subtlety and depth of her acting almost carries the day, but, in the end, the tortoise pace and vicious in-fighting drags the film down.

Reviewed on: 15 Jan 2004
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The story of how one of the most famous paintings in the world was conceived.
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Director: Peter Webber

Writer: Olivia Hetreed, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier

Starring: Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan, Alakina Mann, Chris McHallem, Gabrielle Reidy, Rollo Weeks

Year: 2003

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK/Luxembourg


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