Girl With A Pearl Earring Review
Considering the overwhelmingly literary nature of most British period films, it’s something of a surprise to encounter Girl With A Pearl Earring. Here is a film which, in so far as it has an inner life, only exists visually. There’s barely any plot, sparse character development and a severe lack of narrative suspense. The surprise is that this doesn’t destroy the piece because, for once, a film about a painter and his muse has been rendered in visual terms so exquisite that you hardly notice that very little is going on.
Based on the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier, a book which seems to have become the mascot of reading groups everywhere, the film is about the speculated artist/model relationship between Griet (Johansson), a servant girl, and her master, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Firth). The result of this was the famous 1665 painting “Girl With A Pearl Earring”, a work which the film suggests was the product of a platonic meeting of minds between an artist and the only woman who, despite being illiterate, was the only person to understand his work. Needless to say, any kind of relationship – even a non-sexual one – between master and servant was unacceptable to society in general and to Vermeer’s neurotic wife (Davis) in particular. Her increasing paranoia about her husband’s interest in the servant comes to a crisis point when Vermeer’s patron, Van Ruijven (Wilkinson), demands a portrait of Griet for his personal collection.
It’s not often that a film really knocks you out with the power of its visuals and for a British film to do that – despite the honourable tradition of Powell/Pressburger, Greenaway and a very few others – is now incredibly rare. But in making a film about one of the greatest artists who ever lived, debutante director Peter Webber has placed his trust in a group of astonishingly gifted technicians. The first of these is cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Having recently re-watched Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, I was convinced that I would never see an evocation of the past which quite matched the work of Michael Ballhaus, but Serra has proved me wrong. There are moments in this film, notably an afternoon walk by the river, which are so breathtaking that they make you realise why people wanted to paint with light in the first place. Some have complained that the visual style is very mannered but it seems to me that this is an ideal marriage between form and content. Frequently, as with the banquet for Van Ruijen, the lush pale-gold of the cinematography tells the whole story of the scene . My only quibble would be the bizarre decision to use 2.35:1 for a film which tries so hard to recreate the work of Dutch painters. This is one case where fullscreen or, at most, 1.66:1 would be appropriate. However, I have no quibbles about the second collaborator. The production design of Ben Van Os is note-perfect. Even the most fanatical history pedant is likely to be happy with this. The viewer really does seem to be transported back in time, something which can be said of relatively few period films. The visuals frequently supply more story than there is in the plot and it’s nice to be able to lean back and drink in the gorgeous detail while your mind is napping at the lack of any narrative impetus.
In narrative terms, the story is largely speculative. Like Jean Rhys’s marvellous novel about the events preceding “Jane Eyre”, it takes a great work of art and teases the past out of it. I don’t think that it particularly matters whether there’s any great truth in what it suggest. The point is that the speculations are internally consistent and historically believable. On this level, the plot works very well and chimes with what we know about the Dutch economy in the mid-17th Century, when the Republic was gradually becoming a great trading nation at the expense of a neglected underclass. Vermeer’s predicament at the hands of a loutish patron is one which was replicated the world over by artists in every field. There being no Arts Council to provide any financial underpinning, he was at the mercy of rich men who liked good art; in much the same way, female novelists during the late 18th and 19th Centuries were largely at the mercy of male publishers who thought that women didn’t write books and, if they did, that the public should be deterred from finding out. Essentially, this film is largely about the place of an artist within a national economy and the knock-on effects that are experienced by his family and servants. Everything that happens does so because Vermeer needs Van Ruijens money in order to keep his spoilt, vain wife in the style to which she, along with her mother (Parfitt) has become accustomed.
But the film concentrates more on the character of Griet and the ways in which she is used by everyone else and it’s here that the film both succeeds and fails. It succeeds because Scarlett Johansson is emerging as one of the best actresses currently working in cinema. She has a face for suffering as perfect as that of Isabelle Adjani in Truffaut’s similarly vague and beautiful L’histoire d’Adele H. She keeps her emotions tightly held in here but her expressions are beautifully articulate and when she smiles – which is only about twice in the film – it’s like some kind of heavenly miracle. This is essential for the part, which is so diffuse in the writing that the character barely exists for us. Johansson is forced to fill in the blanks and she does so brilliantly. It’s perhaps appropriate that she had to do something very similar with an equally nebulous character in Lost In Translation. Her resemblance to the woman in the original picture is tenuous at best but that doesn’t really matter. She seems to be sharing the same emotional life with the original and that’s what is important.
However, the failure of the film lies in failing to adequately dramatise the characters around Griet. Colin Firth is a good actor in the right part but he can’t do anything with Vermeer. The character is so inconsistent – firm one minute, a dishcloth the next – in his dealings with people that it doesn’t make any sense. We’re told that he is passionate and fiery but there’s no suggestion of that in the performance. Vermeer comes across as a cold fish who treats Griet like a fragile religious ornament while apparently prepared to spiritually prostitute her for the sake of money. Tom Wilkinson, an equally impressive actor, can’t do anything to make Van Ruijen more than a stock villain. He does everything except wear a cape, cackle and tie Griet to some railway lines. Although there’s no necessary distinction between having a voracious carnal appetite and a love of great art, it would help if Van Ruijen was presented as having at least the suggestion of an aesthetic sense.
A bigger problem is the almost total lack of suspense. Webber, in his first film, demonstrates an ability with images that is way beyond his ability with actors or storytelling. The producer has called the film “a domestic thriller” but it’s almost completely devoid of any thrills, whether visceral or intellectual. Everything that happens could be guessed from the first moment that Griet enters the Vermeer household and the relationships don’t offer anything that you wouldn’t expect. Given this predictability, the film leans on its visuals to such an extent that the story virtually evaporates. The characters don’t develop and what surprises there might have been are telegraphed far in advance – the malicious looks that Griet receives from one of the Vermeer children for example, indicate that something is going to be said about her relationship with the painter and this is registered by the audience about half an hour before the revelation comes. There is a certain momentum built up in the brief painting scenes but the film seems to shy away from portraying the agony of creation and never comes anywhere near to comparable scenes in two films about Van Gogh - Lust For Life and Vincent And Theo. You get far more of a sense about how difficult it is to create and how art takes over the consciousness of the artist in the 30 minute Scorsese-directed Life Lessons story from New York Stories, where Nick Nolte played a painter in the throes of personal crisis. Occasionally, there are insights into painting that this layman found riveting – the use of black to underpin blue and provide shadow, for example – but pretty soon we go back to the old repressed passion clichés that have been so well-worn by now that they must be due for a rest.
In fact, it’s the presentation of yet another doomed, platonic love affair that seriously weakens the film. She can’t cross the lines of class and position. He can’t put down his paintbrush and violate perfection. Vermeer might be hot stuff at impregnating his wife but he’s as emotionally and sexually unable with Griet as a seventy year old man with a personality disorder who has lost his Viagra . Yes, it might be historically accurate. Yes, it’s emotionally convincing. But ultimately, we’ve been here thousands of times before, particularly in the years since Anthony Hopkins gave us the definitive portrayal of buttoned-up sexual denial in Remains Of The Day. Essentially, Girl With A Pearl Earring is a perfect recreation of a time, place and painting style which is dressed to kill but hasn’t the guts to draw blood. It remains worth watching for the images and for the superb performance of Scarlet Johansson. But otherwise, it’s period chic for people who find impotence a turn-on.
Pathe are releasing Girl With A Pearl Earring on DVD at the end of the month. It’s a very impressive disc of a film which is dramatically nebulous but visually extraordinary.
Thankfully, the visual transfer does full justice to the film. It’s presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. A picture which is lit as carefully as this one demands special attention if it’s going to look good on DVD. There are many scenes shot with a bare minimum of light or deliberately oversaturated to emphasise particular colours. The light from windows has to be perfectly deployed and the different areas of the house need to be distinctly different in feel – the pale blue of the studio contrasting with the red of the banquet scene for example. This transfer is fantastically good. Dead-on colours are the most impressive aspect – having seen the film in the cinema I was a bit worried about colour bleeding on DVD but my concerns were unfounded. The dark scenes are beautifully well defined and throughout the film there is plenty of detail without over-enhancement. No artefacting is visible. The only slight complaint is that some scenes seem to be a little too grainy and the texturing becomes distracting. This however is a minor criticism and Girl With A Pearl Earring gets a very high 9 out of 10 from me.
The soundtrack is a strong and atmospheric Dolby Digital 5.1 track that immerses you in the world of the film and keeps you involved through an enveloping music track and plenty of action from the surround channels. Naturally, there isn’t much use of the sub, and you wouldn’t expect there to be, but the dialogue is crystal clear and ambient effects come across very nicely.
There are a number of extras, all of them worthwhile. Principally, we get two full length commentaries; one from director Peter Webber and producer Andy , and the other from writer Kate and the author of the novel, Tracy Chevalier. Both are worth listening to. Webber is full of technical information and praise for his cast and crew, although he and the producer are a little too self-congratulatory for my liking. The writers come across rather better with lots of comments about the differences between the book and the film and the reasons why adaptation involves so many changes of emphasis. Chevalier is very keen on the film and seems to consider it a worthy translation of her book into another medium.
Two featurettes are included. The first lasts for roughly 12 minutes and is pretty standard stuff with clips from the film and interview snippets from cast and crew. The second is an episode from the Sundance Channel’s “Anatomy of a Scene” series and is typically interesting. What it lacks in breadth, it gains in focus and it’s fascinating to hear Serra talk about the lighting requirements of a very difficult scene to get right visually.
We get six deleted scenes, all of which are expendable, presented in time-coded letterbox format with an optional commentary from the director. Finally, the theatrical trailer is present.
There are 20 chapter stops and the film has optional English subtitles. No subtitles are provided for the extra features. Menus are nicely designed and backed by the excellent music score but they are a little cumbersome to get through. As a nice additional feature, an audio description track is included.
Girl With A Pearl Earring is a stunning film to look at and this is just about sufficient to distract you from the fact that there’s not a lot going on that hasn’t been done better before. I’m not complaining that it’s subtle since to do so would be to unfairly criticise a film which is trying to be understated at a time when most movies are ludicrously overblown. But subtlety needs to hide significant depths and the depths of this film aren’t anything very unusual. However, the DVD is an excellent presentation of the film and is worth a look, especially if you want to appreciate the extraordinary visual qualities.
The DVD is released by Pather on the 31st May 2004