An Eye for Beauty
When a brilliant artist and an understanding subject share the same love of beauty, a unique masterpiece can be created. Girl with a Pearl Earring relates a simple story illustrating that point -- and does so with breathtaking cinematography befitting the life and times of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Because of its slow pace, this period costume drama may not be to everyone's liking, but Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as the "girl" fascinated me with the depth of their performances here. He's the perfectionist artist; she's the quiet servant who mixes his paints and poses for him, much to his wife's dismay.
It usually takes time to fully appreciate a great painting. One must view it from different angles, search out its particular shadings and touches of light, its balance of color and form, its emotional impact. The same holds true for this unusual film. Taking time to show viewers the sights and sounds of Delft, Holland, during the mid-1600s, Girl with a Pearl Earring seems like a Vermeer painting come to life. Scenes of inhabitants riding in gondolas on canals, shopping in the open markets, dining by candlelight, and carrying on everyday activities form the backdrop for the intense relationship between Vermeer and his peasant model -- a relationship blooming steadily under the watchful eye of the painter's greedy mother-in-law (played magnificently by the regal Judy Parfitt).
What draws this older married man with a family to young Griet (Johansson) and vice versa? When it comes to creating art, such differences as age, marital status, social class, and temperament seem to fade away. Both Vermeer and Griet recognize nuances of lighting, form and color. In fact, the new maid surprises Vermeer's wife and mother-in-law by asking if she should wash the window in the painter's studio. "Why ask such a question?" they inquire. "Because it will change the light," she says.
Johansson (Lost in Translation) is simply marvelous as Griet. She convinced me completely about the girl's sense of wonder at Vermeer's work. While cleaning the painter's studio, she treats everything there with the reverence of a churchgoer. With her lovely porcelain skin and huge expressive eyes, Johansson looks every bit like someone any artist would want to paint. Firth's Vermeer is a change of pace for this fine actor. Coming out of successful roles in romantic comedies like Love Actually and What a Girl Wants, he adopts a more somber persona here -- an artist trapped in a household of materialistic women and dependent on his wealthy patron (Tom Wilkinson) for support. When Firth's Vermeer stares longingly at Griet, it seems perfectly understandable -- but not for any sexual connotation. He becomes obsessed with her not only as a work of art but also as someone who recognizes its importance.
Like Vermeer, first-time director Peter Webber and veteran cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Unbreakable) pay painstaking attention to the visual details of their creation. Based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring may not be a true story, but it emerges as true cinematic art.
(Released by Lions Gate Films and rated "PG-13" for some sexual content.)