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Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Girl with a Pearl Earring
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Director: Peter Webber; Writers: Olivia Hetreed, based on novel by Tracy Chevalier; Director of Photography: Eduardo Serra;
Editor: Kate Evans; Music: Alexandre Desplat;
Production Designer: Ben van Os; Producers: Andy Paterson and Anand Tucker

Starring: Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer; Scarlett Johansson
as Griet; Tom Wilkinson as van Ruijven; Judy Parfitt as Maria Thins; Cillian Murphy as Pieter; Essie Davis as Catharina.

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
January 2, 2004

Johannes Vermeer (Bio of Johannes Vermeer) painted luminously in the 17th Century, with lighted faces from beams of sunlight streaming from the left windows, with exquisite tapestries and sad, but longing faces. Director, Peter Webber has imagined a series of scenes, evocative and reminiscent of Vermeer’s oeuvres, that provide lush pathways, textured interiors, gauzy canals, and tables of deeply colored paint pigments, in Vermeer’s style, that talk to us of his thoughts and desires. Vermeer, was, according to this film adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s novel, a ravenous soul, ravenous for beauty and sensuality, but, as they say, trapped in a suffocating marriage, with an in-house mother-in-law, who ruthlessly enlisted his art commissions, in order to feed her daughter’s fast growing family of spoiled, jealous, little girls.

Vermeer (Colin Firth in long, brown curls) had eyes for Griet (in a starched white, Dutch, linen cap), the family maid (exquisitely portrayed by Scarlett Johansson), who was sold to help her own family in their financial hardship. Griet is also the object of desire of the one art patron “with deep pockets” (van Ruijven, lecherously portrayed by Tom Wilkinson), and she is soon forced to model in the attic studio with her hair covered in a more contemporary fashion, with a large drop pearl earring, that happens to belong to Vermeer’s shrill, tempestuous, and always pregnant wife (Essie Davis as Catharina), who is tricked by her own mother, in order to keep the patron, van Ruijven’s, pockets flowing. To make matters worse, Catharina and Vermeer have a vicious daughter, who lurks behind doors and curtains, and spitefully attacks Griet, perhaps to protect the mother, or perhaps just for distraction.

Griet has an opportunity to marry the butcher’s son, portrayed by Cillian Murphy, who dresses up in Sunday finest, to court the full-lipped frau along the most luscious pathways and scenery I have seen filmed in some time. The film’s exterior and interior photography, as well as the design of makeup and costumes to replicate Vermeer’s works (I am positive I have seen that mother-in-law, with her tight black cap and parsed lips in some of Vermeer’s work), are worthy of international accolades. Even the outdoor butcher shop and kitchen scenes, with freshly chopped meats and animals, are more realistic than I even would wish. The kitchen fires and candlelit banquets, the vegetable bowls and sterling/pewter/crystal goblets, platters, and dinnerware, the starched sheets and shirts hanging on sunlit clotheslines, and the wandering chickens and cobblestones are all brilliantly painted in filmed scenery that confuses the viewers into thinking we are actually in a museum, gazing upon Vermeer’s signature works, rather than reclining in a theater, watching a filmed recreation of centuries-old art.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is an intense and tense film, from start to finish, and the ending seems a bit ambiguous, although we assume the logical next steps. Although the story line is not complex, the costumes, lighting, stage sets, even the thickest of snowfalls, and the opportunities for psychological piercing into the souls of the main characters (as Vermeer silently gazes only once upon Griet’s long, golden curls, as she changes her head coverings) have created the most mesmerizing moments of film this season. The sound effects are superb, on the simplest of levels, such as Griet’s dragging a chair or wetting her lips, such as the sounds of childbirth, such as wind billowing the fresh laundry, and such as the faintest of sighs.

Kudos to Alexandre Desplat for the haunting film score, to Eduardo Serra for the miraculous direction of photography, and to Peter Webber, for his critical direction of this rare art film. And, kudos to Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth for their spellbinding roles that never upstage the filmed re-creation of Vermeer’s body of art. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a class act.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at