Girl With a Pearl Earring
2003Director: Peter Webber
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Essie Davis
ou know that oft-used rhetorical question, “If you were stranded on a desert island, what album/book/movie would you take?” Well, I’ve never been good at answering that question because I find the entire concept of that kind of reduction terrifying. I like some movies for their soundtracks, some movies for their cinematography, some movies for their dialogue, some movies for their story, some movies simply because they are just loaded with cute boys, and, well, you can see my dilemma. I suppose if there was one film that managed to encompass all of those aforementioned criteria, or at least come damn close, it would have to be Milos Foreman’s Amadeus. And when pressed, yes, Amadeus would be my desert island flick, but the question still inspires an unpleasant anxiety in me. So, to console myself I have to modify that question so that it is; “What genre would I take with me?” Answer: costume drama.
I have been a sucker for costume dramas for as long as I can remember. With the notable exception of a few Merchant Ivory pictures, I never met a costume drama I didn’t like. I suppose its because costume dramas have an edge when it comes to doing what I most love movies to do: to transport me. I find it much easier to lose myself in a time long before mine, surrounded by fashions and settings and customs long abandoned to the dust of history. So, naturally, something like Girl With a Pearl Earring sounded right up my cobblestone, gas-lit alley.
Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a beautiful peasant girl in the service of artist Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) as the new maid in the Vermeer household. Griet, whose father was also an artist, comes equipped with an abiding reverence for art, not to mention a knowledge and appreciation of it that is sadly superfluous considering her station in life.
Vermeer, like most artists both then and now, teeters on the brink of poverty as he attempts to balance his own creative passions with the drudgery of the commissioned works necessary to put food on the table and to keep the creditors at bay. The vast majority of those commissions come from Vermeer’s patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who perfectly personifies the kind of gluttonous, devouring, demanding specter that haunts Vermeer threatening to devour his artistic passion entirely. It’s as if Van Ruijven is an incubus, bleeding all the joy out of Vermeer’s creative process. A man that neither understands nor appreciates that creative process, but instead greedily consumes its end result and then snarls thoughtlessly for more.
On the opposite end of the spectrum stands Griet whose almost entirely wordless and initially unnoticed belief in Vermeer and his work shines like a beacon every bit as luminously as Johansson does in this role. She is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, perfectly cast as Vermeer’s silent champion and eventual muse for the piece he is perhaps most famous for; Girl With a Pearl Earring. Seeing the awe and respect in her wide shimmering eyes, Vermeer finds renewed the passion that “work” threatens to drain from him, and at the risk of impropriety and the emotional stability of his suspicious wife Catharina, invites Griet into his mysterious, inner world.
On that note, another bit of inspired casting is Essie Davis as Vermeer’s tightly wound wife. She looks so perfectly born to the time, completely natural in corsets and crinolines. But more importantly, it’s the amazing transfiguration of her beautiful face as suspicion takes hold, one minute as pretty and elegantly carved as a doll, the next almost demonic, terrifying in tears. She powerfully illustrates that jealousy is truly the most disfiguring emotion.
In fact, almost all of the “action” in this film, if you can call it that, isn’t so much what is said or done, but is merely what happens in the actors’ faces. There is precious little dialogue in Girl With a Pearl Earring, and the pacing is amazingly slow, but this is in no way a flaw. You find yourself almost holding your breath as eyes meet eyes and worlds are explored in a single gaze. The easiest thing to do with the immense sexual tension that is so lusciously seething in Girl With a Pearl Earring is to let it simmer a bit before jumping headlong into some bodice-ripping hot master-on-maid action, but amazingly the movie never sinks to that level. As a result, you have a movie that is a thousand times more erotic for what you don’tsee as opposed to what you really, really think you dowant to, nay, are dying to see.
Director Peter Webber can certainly congratulate himself for painting a lovely cinematic picture. Every frame of this movie is lovingly composed and beautifully lit and simply exquisite to behold. Incidentally, this film closely preceded an auspicious film-related milestone for me, and that was the chance to finally see Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon. Perhaps this is merely the afterglow talking, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Webber didn’t draw a lot of inspiration from Barry Lyndon, which honors detail, subtlety and authenticity to such a compulsive degree that it represents Kubrick’s spirit, and indeed all that is wondrous about costume dramas, perfectly.
The most notable similarity between Girl With a Pearl Earring and Barry Lyndon that strikes me is the lighting. Webber obviously strove hard to achieve a very organic look using daylight and candlelight to great artistic effect. I’m not sure if natural lighting was used to the same strict degree that it was in Barry Lyndon, but it certainly looks it. The film takes on the same warm, touchable, timeless quality as the works of Vermeer themselves.
Another thing I couldn’t help but notice was how similarly desire was treated in the two. In Barry Lyndon Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson lock eyes over a banquet table for what feels like a lifetime. They stare at each other with such complete lust and longing that I swear I was ready to just slither right out of my skin. I’m kind of grateful that it was a desire for luxury, not women that drove Barry Lyndon, because if I had to endure that kind of tension throughout the entire three hours I would have surely exploded! Girl With a Pearl Earring celebrates the same kind of delicious tease that we don’t see nearly enough of, endlessly stoking the flames of desire while never allowing them to run rampant at the peril of the story of the characters.
I could go on and on about both films, and indeed, it was difficult for me not to scrap my review of Girl With a Pearl Earring altogether and say; “To hell with it! I want to talk about a movie that happened almost 30 years ago instead.” Because frankly, I am that smitten with Barry Lyndon. But not only would that have been a complete non-sequitor, and pretty irresponsible on my part, it would also be doing a tremendous disservice to Peter Webber’s rather remarkable directorial debut, even if it wasn’t the homage to Kubrick I imagine it to be. So even if Girl With a Pearl Earring had nothing more to recommend it than the fact that it was good enough to keep me attentive to the matter at hand, then that alone would be something I would call noteworthy. But it has much more than that going for it.
Girl With a Pearl Earring has more than enough beauty, grace and passion for lovers of film, art, romance and, yes, costume dramas to stand on its own skillfully wrought two feet. And I for one would be happy to find it at whatever video rental franchise populates rhetorical desert islands.
By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2004-01-30