Girl with a Pearl Earring

| December 8, 2003

I generally regard it as a bad sign when the person sitting next to me at the cinema theater asks, “Have you read the book?!” So I sat down to watch Girl with a Pearl Earring with great apprehension; after all, adapting any popular novel is hard, but getting a screenplay out of a book that recreates a painting?! It all spelled disaster. Leaving the theater after the screening, I overheard someone (clearly not familiar with the book) say, “The story doesn’t hold much water, does it? It’s all in the visuals!” Her companion replied, “But that’s the point!” Mulling over these comments, I realized that I had been about to raise the same objection to the film, but if in fact you think of the visuals as the central focus, then, well, it’s a pretty compelling exposition.
Based on Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel of the same name, Girl with a Pearl Earring is an exploration of Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting. Who, indeed, is that girl? What is her relationship with the painter? Is that look on her face one of fright, or of sadness? What is so important about the pearl earring? These are some of the questions that the novel and Olivia Hetreed’s screenplay try to answer. You might wonder why we care: in fact, just as there is much controversy over whether an author’s life informs his or her work, there is a great deal of discussion about whether the artist’s relationship with his or her model — and that old question about what the artist originally had in mind — helps or hinders our appreciation of a painting. I would count myself among those who consider this story-behind-the-picture stuff to be downright silly. But the book’s popularity clearly shows that there’s a market for this intellectual game. If a picture catches your fancy, you might in fact, wonder whether it is the history behind it that makes it so striking. The book’s contribution seems to have been to illustrate in words, the essence of the girl and her world as it is captured in the portrait. That is, the book translates the visual into the literary. So what exactly does the movie do? Translate it back? Once you see the movie, you realize that it is like a collection of Vermeers: each aspect of the girl’s life is rendered as if it was a lost painting from the master’s collection, resplendent in the colors of the Netherlands in the 17th century. The artist’s studio looks like the room in Vermeer’s The Music Lesson or in Lady Standing at the Virginals. By the time the narrative blends into the final, eponymous portrait, it is easy to ignore the whimsical story and concentrate on the wonderful world of Delft that the crystalline blues, the gauzy yellows and those stunning black and white floors have constructed before your eyes.
Since the images are so important, the casting of the central character was obviously crucial. Scarlett Johansson is an uncanny match for Griet, the young servant girl who enters the Vermeer household and earns the trust of her beleaguered employer. It is hard to imagine Johansson’s transformation from Rebecca in Ghost World or Birdy in The Man Who Wasn’t There, into an almost silent, slow-moving Protestant maid holding out in a chaotic Catholic household on the verge of bankruptcy. At times, her modern-day persona seems to peek out, but for the most part, she is the epitome of a Vermeer character, from her healthy build and earthy disposition, to her clear, lustrous complexion. Colin Firth of Bridget Jones’ Diary fame plays the tortured artist who between his eternally pregnant wife and her stern, disapproving mother, has no-one to appreciate the torment of his artistic soul. Griet is the daughter of an artist, so she comes closest to understanding Vermeer who in turn rewards her by teaching her how to mix paint. The fresh-faced beauty also attracts the attentions of the local butcher’s lad, Pieter and van Ruijven, Vermeer’s sponsor, played with lascivious glee by Tom Wilkinson. The interactions between Firth and Wilkinson are some of the most convincing scenes of the film, and this relationship promises an interesting story line. That never materializes, unfortunately, but director Peter Webber guides us through the developments in Griet’s life with very few jerky transitions, culminating in her posing for the famous portrait. In between, there are a couple of gratuitous plot developments which are not resolved in any satisfactory manner — a husband-wife fight here, a groping there–and these incidents also break the flow of Vermeer landscapes and portraits that has been so painstakingly constructed.
In many great paintings of this period, the most remarkable aspect of the visual experience is often something little in the corner, say, a little dog attacking a leg of lamb in a market scene, or a baby in a bonnet screwing up its tiny face in rage while the grown-ups primp and pose in the limelight. While the central event of the picture is dramatic and often carries with it an interesting history, these little things are what add an element of the ridiculous to the picture, and therefore, an element of reality. When you watch Girl with a Pearl Earring, look out for the things happening on the margins or in the background. The true charm of this film is in how these insignificant things have been added up to transport you into a world most of us know only through the painting of the Dutch masters. There’s a Hewlett-Packard ad which shows a little boy in color running through a black and white market, only to end up in a dark room with several adults huddled around a table. As the boy turns his head, the frame freezes and we recognize a famous portrait hanging in an equally famous gallery in London. Girl with a Pearl Earring achieves the same surprising effect on a grander scale.

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