Thursday, November 11, 2004

Movie Review: Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

A film by Peter Webber

Have you ever looked at a painting and wondered who sat for the portrait and what her story may be? Or what the inspiration behind a particular painting was? Tracy Chevalier apparently has because four of her novels have dealt with this very idea. Her most popular novel was "Girl with a Pearl Earring", which looks into one possible origin for the famous Vermeer painting of the same name. Peter Webber's 2003 film "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is an adaptation of Chevalier's bestselling novel.

Griet (Scarlet Johansson) is a young Dutch girl living in the 1600's. Her family is poor, so she is hired as a maid in the household of the painter, Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). This is a very big opportunity for her, though she is viewed with suspicion by Vermeer's wife because he has been indiscreet with the maids in the past. Griet is a quiet girl and is assigned the basic drudge work of cleaning. When she is cleaning Vermeer's studio, being careful not to move anything, Master Vermeer notices her, permits her to continue to work while he is around, and eventually permits Griet to help him. Helping Vermeer means, at various times, mixing paint and posing for portraits to be used as a guide to help Vermeer paint. From this develops a bond between Griet and Vermeer (or perhaps it happens because of the bond), and Griet ultimately becomes the subject of Vermeer's famous and somewhat mysterious painting.

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" can almost be described as a silent film. Griet has very little dialogue, but Scarlet Johansson is able to portray Griet so well that she is a compelling character even without dialogue. Johansson's acting is such that without speaking we are being told a story and being given characterization. Besides Johansson's work, the other main point of note is simply how beautiful this movie is. To make an overly obvious comparison, it is like a painting. This makes sense since the movie is about a particular painting as well as being partly inside the world of Vermeer and art. To be honest, little needs to be said during "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and the film does not suffer for it.

Given Vermeer's past history with the family's maids, and given Griet's beauty (she is pursued also by the butcher's son as well as Vermeer's patron); there is a suspicion of impropriety between Griet and Vermeer. The movie suggests that there might be more to the relationship, and the household believes it, but there is certainly a level of attraction between Griet and Vermeer. It is very understated, but with looks and visual suggestion and maybe even the lack of dialogue helps foster this impression.

Scarlet Johansson was nominated for two Golden Globes in 2003 for her work in "Lost in Translation" and "Girl with a Pearl Earring". Many feel that "Lost in Translation" was her stronger work and that she had deserved to be nominated for an Academy Award. I agree that she should have been nominated, but for "Girl with a Pearl Earring". Here she is being asked to carry the movie with very little dialogue. This film, outside of some critical attention, has been very overlooked. The quiet nature of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" may be off-putting to some, but this is a very good movie and one well worth the time for those with the patience (or interest) to give it a shot.

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