Girl with a Pearl Earring

Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth star in the film "Girl With a Pearl Earring," now playing at Royal Park.

Published: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 10:23 p.m.
At the start of "Girl With a Pearl Earring," Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is shown peeling an onion, an image as metaphor rarely seen outside first-semester filmmaking classes.
The determination in such an effort communicates Importance Writ Large. And the film, adapted by Olivia Hetreed from Tracy Chevalier's novel, does have a great subject: the story surrounding an artwork shrouded in mystery and a project that ruins a woman's reputation yet ensures her a place in history.
This film is the imagined tale of Griet, a maid who became the muse of Johannes Vermeer and the subject of his painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring." The movie is an earnest, obvious melodrama with no soul, filled with the longing silences that come after a sigh.
Yet the care that has gone into making "Earring," a dexterous and absorbing visual re-creation of the lighting and the look Vermeer achieved, is a tribute to the director Peter Webber's own group of artisans, the cinematographer Eduardo Serra and the production designer Ben van Os. The gorgeous score, by Alexandre Desplat, brushes in a haunted gloom that gives the picture life where none seems to exist.
The teenage Griet is sent off to earn a living because her blind father can no longer support her. The onion she is opening at the story's start is part of the last meal she prepares at home before being shipped off. Her separation anxiety registers so fully throughout the film that it should be listed in the cast of characters as the credits roll.
Anxiety permeates the movie like fear of punctures in a Freddy Krueger film. The household that Griet joins is filled with noisy, spoiled children who look down their noses at her. The mistress of the house, Catharina (Essie Davis), is about to add another mouth to the brood.
With all these assaults on her fluttering, tender sensibility, it is no wonder Griet always seems on the verge of tears. One of her few respites comes from the notice of the butcher's thoughtful apprentice, Pieter (Cillian Murphy). But she is far more intrigued by Vermeer, and based on Colin Firth's interpretation, it is easy to see why. He plays Vermeer as a taciturn eccentric whose dark eyes house terror, anger and finally appreciation.
He drinks in Griet's understanding of his art. A scene in which he demonstrates the workings of a camera obscura to her - and their transfixed faces are bathed in its buttery light - has real emotional power; it is like watching a pair of kids trading secrets under a sheet. And when the painter does talk, he speaks faster and with greater passion than anyone else; words boil out of him.

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