Girl With A Pearl Earring (2003)

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Essie Davis, Cillian Murphy

Directed by: Peter Webber

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Scarlett Johansson is the Girl with a Pearl Earring

Now, I have never claimed to be an art buff. I like the Pre-Raphaelites and I can just about tell a Da Vinci from a Dali, but aside from that I hold up my hands and admit that I'm fairly clueless when it comes to paint and canvas. That said, I did love Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl With A Pearl Earring, which tells the fictional story of the creation of Vermeer's famous painting (and face it, even I recognise that.)

A perfectly crafted piece of literature, it's touching, absorbing and rich in clever period details that evoke beautifully the mercantile world of Delft in the mid 17th century (yet without that intensely annoying historical novelist's trait of stylistically elbowing the reader in the ribs as if to say 'Look! Period detail! Haven't I done my research well?').

So would the film live up to the high standards set by the book?

Yes and no.

Like the book, the film creates an entrancing picture of Vermeer's world, and whilst the book can paint the scene using only words, the film has the advantage of being able to present us with living breathing reproductions of the painter's work. And so aproned maid servants chop vegetables or empty ewers against a backdrop of diamond window panes and red and black tiled floors, whilst pale and elegant women sit patiently at the side of richly upholstered merchants as they sip ruby draughts from elegant goblets, jewels glowing lustrously in the candlelight.

The casting of Scarlett Johansson as Griet, a maid in the artist's household who becomes the anonymous Girl of the picture, is nothing short of genius. With her wide eyes, flawless skin and unfeasibly full pout, she is the spitting image of the mysterious Girl, capturing exactly the alluring mix of startled innocence and sensuality conveyed by the portrait. (Apparently experts reckon the Girl was actually Vermeer's daughter, but let's not spoil the illusion shall we, especially as she's a nasty piece of work in the film.)

Colin Firth annoys Scarlett Johansson. Perhaps.

Colin Firth, on the other hand (never one of my favourite actors anyway, although he does look quite nice with his long tousled hair and beard) is rather annoying as Vermeer, though whether this is the fault of the actor or the character I'm not quite sure. Controlled by the iron will of his mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), trapped by a besotted and constantly pregnant wife (Essie Davis) who alternately rails at him then falls at his feet in tears, and entirely bound to the whims of his dastardly patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), he seems to have no will of his own at all, and yet the entire household must still revolve around the genius of this powerless master. Confined to his studio, painting away in order to put food on his family's table, he may think he needs someone to understand his creative processes, but I just think he needs a good slap.

Griet, however, is hardly the person to administer it. Besides putting in a long day's shift washing, cleaning, shopping and cooking, she is expected to make time, secretly, to mix up paints and pose as a model, because Vermeer says so. Although it must be said, Griet would have made time for a lot more if she hadn't done everything so damned slowly. How long does it take to set a table and chop a few veg??

Griet and Pieter

However, we'll let her off, as slow and deliberate is definitely the name of the game in Girl With A Pearl Earring. Like a painter slowly applying delicate brush strokes to a canvas, the story builds up gradually, scene by scene, until we come to see a full picture of life in the Vermeer household (which, incidentally is far from glamorous). And although she barely speaks a word, we come to understand Griet too as, on the verge of womanhood, she balances a decorous relationship with Pieter the butcher's boy (Cillian Murphy, who, at the risk of coming over a bit Martin Platt, is much cuter than he sounds in the book) against her burgeoning love for her employer and the lecherous advances of his smarmy patron.

Not a lot actually happens in the film, but small actions are writ large on the emotional canvas (enough artistic metaphors in this review yet, you reckon?), assuming a significance far greater than their whole. So although Griet and Vermeer's relationship is never consummated, the scene in which the painter pierces the young girl's ear in order that she may wear his wife's pearl earring has far more emotional resonance than a sex scene ever could. And sure enough, when Vermeer's jealous wife finds out, poor Griet finds herself out on her bleeding ear.

And it's at this point that I became annoyed with the film, because, well, it ends. With Griet back at home with her parents, disgraced and miserable, clutching the earrings disconsolately as she contemplates a future without her beloved Vermeer. In the book, on the other hand, she grasps her future firmly in both hands, selling the earrings, marrying Pieter and living as happily ever after as is permissible for a butcher's wife in 17th century Holland. (Which is probably fairly happily, as long as one doesn't object to the smell of blood.)

However, Griet's lack of feistiness aside, Girl With A Pearl Earring is a beautiful film, every bit as carefully crafted as the book. Whoever designed the costumes and sets deserves an Oscar, because it looks just gorgeous, whilst managing to remain just about on the right side of being too sentimentally picture perfect. So aside from wanting to slap Colin Firth, all in all I'd judge this film a slow, seductive visual treat. Go see.

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