Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Girl with a Pearl Earring.


Peter Weber’s directorial debut Girl with a Pearl Earring is a complex, subtle, and extremely visually film.

Not having read Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name, I’m poorly positioned to judge how well the transition from book to film has been handled, but I can say that the film maker has made a story, where precious little happens, come across dynamically and intriguingly on the big screen.

The story is the hypothetical background to Vermeer’s famous painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, taking a young Protestant girl, Griet (Scarlett Johansson), who due to impoverishment of her family, is sent to Delft to work as a serving girl in the house of painter Vermeer (Colin Firth). Through a carefully paced narrative she becomes the subject of one of Vermeer’s most famous works.

To describe the story thus gives nothing away, as this is most certainly not a film about action. It’s a film that is brave enough to pose subtle questions throughout. Up for debate are Religion and Art. Vermeer’s home is Catholic (Though for the historical record, he was from a Protestant family and married into a wealthier Catholic family) and colourful, while Griet, his muse, is Protestant and permanently covers her hair with a white cap. And yet, Vermeer’s studio is spartan and cold, and Griet is chosen by Vermeer precisely because she can see the complex colours in simple things, the light and the tone. What’s the relationship then of art to religious upbringing? A more obvious question is that of the relationship between Money and Art. Vermeer’s patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) is portrayed as a lecherous presence who must be pleased at all costs, and Vermeer at the end of the day creates this masterpiece as much because Van Ruijven wills it, as for his passion for Griet. On top of all that, there’s the question of exploitation, and sex, always brimming in the background, but rarely realised. To what extent does Vermeer use this girl and her innocence, for his art?

One of the things you notice is that while there is little action, there is also strangely enough little dialogue. Much of the film is told visually, whether it be the facial expressions, or the movements of the characters. Given that, it’s not surprising that the film has received mixed reviews. Some critics have criticised its pace, for example Josh Bell of the Las Vegas Weekly (what a global village we live in), who described the film as “one long, slow—but very pretty—bore”. This is to miss the point. Certainly, there will be people who find the film slow, but that doesn’t mean it should have been done differently, but rather that this is not their type of film.

There’s an internal logic and dynamic to the film that I found captivating and perfectly paced. The film builds to a dramatic crescendo, which provides some sparse but intelligent dialogue. It brought to mind, above all, scenes in A man for all seasons, where characters are allowed to develop crucial philosophical arguments. Catharina, Vermeer’s wife (Essie Davis) finds that he has painted Griet wearing one of her earrings. Her mother, who is complicit in the event, says imploringly “They’re just paintings. Pictures for money. They mean nothing!”, but there’s the rub: they’re worth money precisely because they domean something, a fact not lost on the hysterical Catharina.

Weber, and a number of people involved on the production side of things are co-incidentally all art history majors, and this shines through, without it becoming a distraction. For someone who has no more than a passing interest in the visual arts, much less 17th century Dutch masters, even I could recognise hints and traces of famous paintings in the scenes. Much credit must go to the Director of Photography Eduardo Serra (Jude, Wings of the Dove and Beyond the Sea, to name but a few of his credits), because this is truly a lavish and beautiful film to watch. To be able to create scenes where the lighting and texture subconsciously remind the viewer of those famous Vermeer, Rembrandt and Breughel paintings is no mean feat. Weber’s direction adds to the 'painterly’ feel of the film, constantly placing characters in frames, be they doorways or windows.

The art references are profuse and important, and one imagines that art history critics will have a ball spotting the visual gags, but they never overpower the dynamic of the film. Above all else what makes the film work are the extraordinary performances of both Firth (which I for one was surprised by, not having rated him much before now) and above all Johansson. For a film that revolves around a portrait painting it’s no wonder that Johansson’s face to a great extent becomes the star of the film. The story is told by her facial reactions, and they are superb. The moment when she is ultimately betrayed is a scene of silence, but the meaning is clearly written all over her face. At the age of 18, and on the strength primarily of this and Lost in Translation she has made her mark as a great, great talent. The interaction with Firth is brilliant. He looms into the film, a good twenty five minutes in (too slow, Mr Bell?), and says little. His is a mysterious and brooding presence throughout the film. His motives are never clear – and that’s how it should be. A telling remark from the Director was that certain scenes between Johanson and Firth were shot with Sergio Leone in mind, like an erotic gunfight, and that perfectly captures the tension between the two.

Gripes? Well, I would have liked to have seen more of Griet’s family. Some questions are better left unanswered, but some it seems to me are worthy of development. Also there’s a subplot of hostility between Vermeer’s twelve year old daughter Cornelia (Alakinna Mann –The Others) and Griet, that seems to play a large role but ultimately comes to nothing, as if in the editing process they decided to rule her out. Why the hostility? Is it jealousy, or just a snotty 12 year old (Mann incidentally is a strong presence who will have you asking yourself where you’ve seen her before, or would have if we hadn’t told you already).

In the final reckoning though, a subtle and intelligent film. Full marks to Weber for a courageous Big Screen debut.

Leave a Reply