The most memorable scene in Peter Webber's Girl With a Pearl Earring arrives when an illiterate scullery maid ventures in to clean the studio of the great 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Intrigued by the architecture of a domestic setting the artist is working on -- a woman standing at a table by a window -- the maid studies both the painting in progress and the setting with a mannequin in the place where a model will eventually stand. Suddenly, with absolutely certainty, she strides across the room and removes a chair.
Later, when the artist discovers what she's done, he questions her about it. Unflinching, she replies, "The chair makes her seem trapped." Twisting his head to view the setting from different angles, the painter considers her assertion. She's right. And thus the vanished chair disappears from his painting. This terrific scene expresses so much of the film's theme. In a man's world, in a world where fences of class are almost impossible to scale, mere talent, especially that possessed by a woman, is of little consequence. Unfortunately, the whole of Girl With a Pearl Earring is too subtle for its own good, and its narrative buoyancy is too feeble to give its themes the visibility they deserve.
Adapted for the screen by Olivia Hetreed from Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring is the story of Griet (the luminous Scarlett Johansson), a young woman whose desperately impoverished family (including a blind father) must put her into domestic service. Her first job is in the home of Vermeer (Colin Firth), a painter of surpassing talent and astonishingly little output. His entire corpus is less than 40 paintings. (Picasso could seemingly dash off that many in an afternoon.) Vermeer has education and class on his side, but he works so slowly that his family is far less prosperous than it might be. They all live with his mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), who serves as his agent and scold. As best we can tell, she's the devil's bride.
Vermeer's wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), meanwhile, is a basket case of neuroses. She's produced a brood of evil brats over whom she exercises no control whatsoever. And the barely controlled chaos of her house would collapse into utter pandemonium were it not for the iron will of her mother. This is the ugly world into which Griet descends when she's hired to wash dishes, do laundry, scrub floors, clean windows and assist the cook with shopping and kitchen chores. She's not to make eye contact, and she's not to speak unless spoken to. And no matter how hard and conscientiously she works, she can expect no appreciation or other consideration -- until Vermeer sees in her something she hasn't even known about herself. He sees that she has an artistic sensibility with which his own can communicate. Among the film's several failings is that we haven't a clue how Vermeer is able to detect Griet's innately aesthetic nature.
But the painter challenges Griet to see light the way he does, and when she easily passes this test, he literally and figuratively lifts her up. He has her sleeping quarters relocated from the cellar to the attic near his studio. And pretty soon, he's training her to make paint and mix the colors for his paintings. When they work together, their hands occasionally brushing, we presume that they will become lovers. But on this score the picture is surprising. Griet and Vermeer are soulmates, but they barely even touch each other physically. And this isn't because they lack physical passion. The artist produces a bevy of offspring and occasionally even exhibits tenderness toward his exasperating wife, while Griet eventually surrenders her virginity, with some urgency, to Pieter (Cillian Murphy), the handsome butcher's apprentice from the local market.
Girl With a Pearl Earring is a memorably beautiful picture, its individual scenes composed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Eduardo Serra as if they themselves were 17th century paintings. (The film also earned nominations for its art direction and costume design.) And filmgoers will find it no burden to study Scarlett Johansson's infinitely expressive face.
Unfortunately, the movie has the proximate narrative pace of a painting. Webber lingers so long on almost every shot that the film seems twice as long as its 95-minute running time. The picture is sometimes clumsy, especially in its use of Vermeer's nasty daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann), who repeatedly and improbably shows up to spy on and torment Griet. Frustratingly too little is revealed. We haven't a clue, for instance, why Vermeer puts up with either Catharina or Maria. And alas, the story is thin from beginning to end: Griet arrives to work like a slave and be treated like a dog. She finds fleeting escape in working with the artist and in the hurried rendezvous with Pieter. Vermeer asks her to pose for the painting that will become his masterpiece. Catharina flips out and fires Griet when she discovers that Vermeer has made Griet wear Catharina's earrings. The end. Not much sturm and no drang at all.
- Griet (Scarlett Johansson) goes from maid to muse in Peter Webber's sumptuous but ultimately flat Girl With a Pearl Earring.