Girl With a Pearl Earring Review
This review contains minor spoilers.
Delft, Holland, 1665. Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a peasant girl, is employed as a maid in the household of the well-known painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Very quickly, she attracts the animosity of Vermeer’s continually pregnant wife Catharina (Essie Davis) and her daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann), who both try to undermine her. To Vermeer’s colleague Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), Griet is little more than the object of his lust. But a rapport soon develops between Griet and Vermeer, and soon she’s helping him in his studio. And then comes an opportunity for her to model for him…
Girl With a Pearl Earring is based on Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel, which I haven’t read. It’s a reconstruction of what might have been the circumstances behind Vermeer’s famous painting, which hangs in The Hague. The emphasis is on the relationship between Griet and Vermeer, which is not quite platonic, but doesn’t become sexual…though the scene where Vermeer pierces Griet’s earlobe so that she can wear the earring of the title (which belongs to Catharina) can certainly be read as a consummation. Needless to say, Catharina is deeply suspicious of all of this.
Peter Webber’s direction isn’t always as sure as it could be but he brings in a film which is well paced and fortunately isn’t self-importantly overlong. In its way it’s an appealing low-key film. He gets considerable help from Ben Van Os’s production design and especially Eduardo Serra’s cinematography, both of which are Oscar-calibre. Serra does a great job in replicating Vermeer’s trademark use of light, though for a film so influenced by the look of classical painting shooting in Scope is an odd decision. (Artists in Vermeer’s time simply didn’t use a shape that wide.) Sometimes you can sense director and DP fighting the width, narrowing it by means of frames within the frame. Olivia Hetreed’s script is intelligent and avoids many of the pitfalls of this genre.
Colin Firth doesn’t have a great deal to do except appear sensitive and charismatic, which is hardly a stretch for him, and the mainly British supporting cast do typically solid work. But ultimately this is Scarlett Johansson’s film. Looking remarkably like Vermeer’s model, she gives a performance that is best described as luminous – if that’s a cliché it’s also appropriate for a film so concerned with light.
Girl With a Pearl Earring won’t be for everyone, as not a lot actually “happens” on the surface. But as an evocation of a time and place it certainly satisfies.