With all the attention to detail of a Dutch master, Girl with a Pearl Earring brings to colorful life the creation of one of the art world’s great masterpieces.
View of Delft
PG-13 for sexual content
In 1665 the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer put on canvas a portrait of a beautiful girl wearing a blue and yellow headdress and a pearl earring. Nothing is known about whom this girl was or if she even existed, for that matter.
Nonetheless, the end result of Vermeer’s efforts is a haunting picture of a young girl staring back at the world through the centuries. The prized possession of the Mauritshuis Royal Cabinet of Paintings in The Hague, Netherlands, the portrait hangs in the company of masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt, van Dyck, and Avercamp.
With the painting as her springboard, novelist Tracy Chevalier wrote a fictional account of the events surrounding the creation of Vermeer’s trophy.
Now that novel has made its way to the cinema, with Colin Firth (Love Actually) turning in a solid performance as Vermeer and the rapidly rising star of Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) breathing life into the title character, now given the name of Griet.
The Little Street
Girl with a Pearl Earring enjoys the same tender loving care found in other period pieces based on significant artistic figures, such as Amadeus and Frida. Here, though, the charms are more subtle. The production is drenched in exquisite details, from Delft tiles to a host of Vermeer’s other works. Vermeer’s home is skillfully recreated with a sense of exactitude, from the map of the world to the piano that were featured in some of his paintings.
The film is a quiet drama, but it also has fun with its source material, playing off both what is known and hypothesized about the Dutch master’s life. Even the camera obscura makes a cameo appearance. Recent examinations of Vermeer’s work suggest his masterful use of color, perspective, and focus were aided by the device, one of the earliest predecessors of the modern photographic camera, but the subject is still up for debate.
Given its introspective ambitions, the film finds its charms in Griet and her relationship with two men: Vermeer and the Dutch boy Pieter (Cillian Murphy, 28 Days Later…). Vermeer and Griet find an instant bonding in their appreciation of art and color; it’s a relationship that’s open to all possibilities, but the film takes the high road with its interactions between Vermeer, his family, and Griet.
Even so, when Griet privately lets her flowing red hair down, Vermeer’s lingering eye catches her in this “undressed” state and the sexual tension is far greater than what typical Hollywood fare musters with full frontal nudity.
As for Pieter, he pursues Griet with a casual charm and slowly warms the girl’s sheltered heart.
Girl with a Wineglass
Lending tension to the proceedings is a rather sleazy aristocrat, and Vermeer’s best customer, van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson, The Patriot). It is thanks to him, the film proposes, that Vermeer found himself painting the girl’s portrait.
Given that Girl with a Pearl Earring is an independently produced film, some of its technical ambitions aren’t quite fulfilled. A couple matte paintings used to recreate the 17th century Delft cityscape are distracting in their obviousness. The railings on some of the canal bridges evoke more of the modern-day Delft than the one that existed four centuries ago. Also, considering her lowly upbringing as a servant girl, Griet is given too much credit for some of Vermeer’s choices, including the final composition of Woman with a Water Jug.
But those are small criticisms for a unique movie that has its heart in the right place.
In this, his big screen directorial debut, Peter Webber has crafted a nicely nuanced film that includes a stunning recreation of the girl’s famous look now frozen in time.
Nearly 340 years after the creation of its inspiration, Girl with a Pearl Earring the movie is itself is a work of art.