Whilst she falls increasingly under Vermeers spell, his volatile family quickly grows jealous of her. Maria, his shrewd mother-in-law, struggles to maintain the familys lifestyle, but seeing that Griet inspires Vermeer, takes the decision to let their relationship develop. Van Ruijven, also sensing the intimacy between master and maid, commissions Vermeer to paint Griets portrait. The result will be one of the greatest paintings ever created but at what cost?
In Holland around 1665, Griet [Scarlett Johannson] takes a job as a maid once her blind father is no longer able to work. The household in which she finds employment is that of master painter Johannes Vermeer [Colin Firth]. Though not educated, Griet has an understanding of Vermeer's art and talent which draws the two together, and finally Vermeer decides that Griet is to be the subject of his next painting.
Although Vermeer is clearly attracted to Griet, a beauitful but retiscently modest girl, we are not here to witness a scandalous extra-marital sexual affair. Indeed the two barely even touch throughout the entire piece. But that makes the momentary visual connections infinitely more intimite.
As a film about an artist and painting, I had expected strong use of bold colours but in fact the appearance is very washed out. This certainly fits the period mood of seventeenth century Holland, but more importantly allows Eduardo Serra's cinematography to focus on use of rich light and shadows that perfectly compliments (and to a degree pays homage to) Vermeer's own style. The incredible attention to detail, in both the set design and the way in which they are lit, is one of the focal points of this film. Technical subtleties like focus shifting become incredibly symbolic as in the scene with Griet and Vermeer together mixing paints in silence in his studio.
The storyline is simple and uncluttered, with there are no subplots to draw attention away from the films focus, but equally this means the pace is painstakingly slow. But the reward are the moments of incredible intensity when we see the two characters alone together, beginning with the camera obscura, and climaxing as Vermeer pierces Griet's ear in an obviously symbolic act representing the sexual intimacy that they know will never be consumated.
Johansson's performance as Griet is astounding (further casting a dark light over the Academy who failed to nominate her for an Oscar for either this or her other recent masterful performance in Lost in Translation). She captures Griet's curiosity as she discovers her own intuitive ability to appreciate and understand art, which is what draws Vermeer to her. She becomes his muse, inspiring some paintings, and even improving them. In a flawlessly touching sequence she stares at the canvas of Vermeer's half-completed work, then adjusts a chair in the scene. Later we see Vermeer, moved by her observation, has also removed the chair from his painting.
Colin Firth is enigmatic and convincing as the teacher Griet is drawn to. However, his understated acting does occassionally loses its charisma. Tom Wilkinson has the opposite effect with his leering, charismatically dispicable role of Vermeer's patron, obsessively attracted to Griet himself. Essie Davis as Vermeer's wife brilliantly portrays her frustration as she feels overshadowed by the presence of her mother, the talent of her husband, and soon by Griet too.
Visually moving, the story being told is simple but powerful as the two figures make an intellectual connection, an unfulfilled romance emerges from mutual respect, in an impossible situation. Although beautifully filmed, much of the 95 minutes is not hugely memorable, but instead builds up to the occassional moments that are genuinely breathtaking and have an indescribable intensity as we share in the connection between Griet and Vermeer, and these scenes show just how powerful the medium can be.
Griet (Scarlett Johannson), is a young girl from a Calvinist family who has to seek employment as a maid in the Roman Catholic household of the famous painter. She is given her duties, one of which is to clean the upstairs studio, but only when the master is not busy painting. Even Vermeer's wife, Catharine (Essie Davis) will not enter that place, for reasons we will learn about later. Before she meets the artist (peter Firth), Griet sees his current painting, "Woman with a Pearl Necklace" (1664-65) and we can tell from her eyes that she is looking at something wondrous.
We know that Griet is no fool, because she refuses to accept bad meat from the local butcher, which causes his son, Pieter (Cillian Murphy), to notice her. But in the house she is beneath notice, told not to speak until spoken to first. One day she asks the ladies of the house, Catharina and her mother, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), if when she is cleaning the studio if she should do the windows. Her concern is that doing so would change the light. The women look at her without comprehension and Catharina tells her to go ahead and clean the windows. For Maria these are just paintings, things that allow her son-in-law to make money, but for Griet they are something else, and it while cleaning the windows in the corner of the studio that Vermeer used in most of his paintings, that the artists sees her and discovers a new source of inspiration.
The fact that neither his perpetually pregnant wife nor his coin counting mother-in-law has any appreciation for art explains in large part why Vermeer is drawn to Griet. She might not be able to read but he asks her what color are the clouds, she knows the obvious answer is not right for a painter and comes up with the correct one. But then when Vermeer shows her the canvas he is working on, "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher" (1994-65), she knew that the colors were all wrong, and he explains why.
This is a film in which the most erotic moment comes when we finally see Griet's hair, although others might disagree and find mixing paints to be the height of the film's sexuality. But I tended to dismiss such things because I find "Girl with a Pearl Earring" to be about an intimacy that transcends the mere physical realm of sex (the actual painting is of intimate size, 18 by 16 inches). Whatever feelings they might have for each other have to be expressed in other ways, because this is a film that has its sensibilities firmly set in the world of art in the 17th century. Besides, the venality of man is amply represented by Vermeer's patron, the wealthy businessman Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson).
Ultimately the film comes down to not just the girl, but to the pearl earring, which belongs to Catharine, but which Vermeer insists must be dangling from Griet's ear in the portrait. Griet knows this is going too far, but we know that she cannot deny him in the end, especially since we have seen the finished painting, which is one of the most beguiling in art history this side of "The Mona Lisa." But also because she is given a push in a somewhat surprising move by one of the characters. The notion that if this is romance it is of a transcendent type that cannot be judged by normal rules. He immortalizes her in a painting and what does she do in return? She lets him pierce her ear and of equal importance, she moves a chair. I so admire films that can work on that lyrical a level.
This 2003 film has been nominated for Oscars for Cinematography Eduardo Serra, Art Direction, set director Ben van Os and set decorator Cecile Heidman, and Costume Design by Dien van Straalen. All clearly take their inspiration from Vermeer's paintings. The lighting throughout the film reflects that of Vermeer's studio, which means it never looks quite as good when we are elsewhere, because the studio is the heart of the film. Tanneke (Joanna Scanlan), the family maid, looks like "The Milkmaid" (1958-60) and Vermeer's wife at one point is costumed exactly like "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter" (1663-64).
Like the painting from which it takes its name and whose enduring image naturally ends the film, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is Quiet and contemplative. The entire story is speculative because little is known about Vermeer besides his 35 painting, and whether his model for this one was his daughter, a neighbor, or a tradeswoman, no one will ever know. But it is impossible not to look at this painting without wondering who this girl was and what thoughts are going through her mind.
Johannson's performance commands the film, although she is seldom required to speak and rarely asked what she might be thinking. Parfitt as the true power in the Vermeer household offers the other stellar performance, while Firth's dazzling charm from other films is sublimated to his character's artistic temperament. Of course, the greatest compliment that can be paid to first time director Peter Webber is that he has crafted this film with the same care that Vermeer used in painting his own canvases.
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