Reviews of Girl with a pearl Earring

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Reviews of Girl with A Pearl Earring (II)
From assorted journals and websites.

Jeffrey Overstreet

In a one of the year’s quietest, most intense films, Scarlett Johansson plays a neglected young woman with repressed longings who is suddenly noticed by a depressed but observant older man. As their relationship grows, the man is tempted to cast off his marital responsibilities, while she gets a taste of being recognized and loved for the first time.

Nope, I’m not talking about Lost in Translation (although I could be).

Girl with a Pearl Earring is Peter Webber’s film about the origins of the famous painting. This is the story of Griet, a girl sent to work as a maid in order to aid her family; her father has lost his sight, and they need all the help they can get. She happens into the house of Johannes Vermeer, where she is the latest employee of a quiet, troubled household. Apparently the lord of the manor has a reputation regarding his experience with maids. But it quickly becomes apparent that he is the least of her worries.

Looking at the painting, I never would have thought of Johansson as a good choice to play the figure who inspired it. But this supremely talented actress makes it work. Webber captures Johansson’s unique ability to suggest deep reservoirs of intelligence and emotion concealed behind those large, dark, mature eyes and that expressive face, which still seems stuck in adolescence. In doing so, he finds the precise passion that indwells the painting, so when we finally see it, we don’t blink; it seems perfectly plausible that this is what someone would paint after looking at Johansson for hours. An actress has not communicated so much through so little since Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue.

Fortunately, they have found an actor who can bring the same amount of gravity to the screen in order to portray the painter. I never would have thought of Colin Firth for the portrayal of a contemplative, passionate painter, but he finds in Johannes Vermeer material for what may indeed be his best performance. He is able to make the intense, brooding figure intriguing without making him laughably morose. His hair and costume do seem a bit too precious, but I was surprised at how much chemistry and tension Webber was able to develop between the nearly silent scenes between Vermeer and Griet, the maid who mystifies him.

Strong supporting work makes the film even richer. Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) plays van Ruijven, a lecherous but wealthy patron who keeps the Vermeer home afloat. Essie Davis is Catharina, Vermeer’s statuesque wife, possessed of both a cold beauty and a volatile temper. Maria Thins, Catharina’s mother, is played by Judy Parfitt, who makes her a formidable figure whose wicked arrogance is cracked by the fragility of her financial condition. This year’s “it boy” Cillian Murphy (star of 28 Days Later, who also appears in Cold Mountain) plays the local butcher boy who thinks he’s found a good catch in the subservient Griet.

The highlight of the film, though, is its “painterly” look. The cinematography and set design are a perfect marriage of period detail, color, and light. I won’t be surprised if there’s a coffee table book published with large glossy stills from the film. It’s gorgeous.

Watching the film, I found myself easing into a reflective, contemplative state that movies rarely allow an audience to reach. It is not that it’s slow–while very little is said or done, there are important things happening in every minute of the film: curiosities developed, risks taken, as well as covert endeavors and revelations. But even more importantly, by inviting us to look closely for hints of emotion and suggestions of betrayal or sympathy, it quietly prepares us to approach Vermeer’s visual art with sharper discernment. We are never lectured about the art, but it inspired instead to look deeper. I wish it could have taken this even further.

But perhaps the most important story that the film has to tell is the same as another, far superior film about art: La Belle Noiseuse. Girl with the Pearl Earring is about the liberating and inspiring experience of being seen. This poor, abused, overlooked girl never intentionally does a thing to draw Vermeer’s attention; in fact, at first she avoids his gaze. But when his keen vision catches in her something of substance and of shared longing–not for erotic adventures, but for enlightenment–it is as if, to alter a line from e. e. cummings, “the eyes of her eyes are opened.”

Griet is a fairly simple character, so Johansson does not have as far to go as she does in Lost in Translation. But to have given us two performances as memorable as these in one year, she is quickly taking her place as the most promising actress of her generation.

Peter Bradshaw

In her last three major films, it has been 19-year-old Scarlett Johansson's destiny to evoke menopausal longing in older men, and what's not to long for? Billy Bob Thornton was obsessed by her in the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There; Bill Murray was entranced by her in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. And now it is the turn of Colin Firth, playing a stubbled, romantic-looking Johannes Vermeer in this speculative imagining of the 17th-century Dutch artist's relationship with his unknown model, to be captivated by the bloom of her untouched loveliness. Even when she was in the 2002 horror movie Eight Legged Freaks, come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I remember seeing some of the older male giant monster-spiders looking at Scarlett piningly, exchanging shy smiles with her, before scuttling off home to contemplate the desolate reality of their monster-spider marriages and careers.

Be that as it may, this movie - taken from the Tracy Chevalier novel - is a stunningly designed piece of work, with hauntingly beautiful cinematography from Eduardo Serra of the sort that often gets called "painterly" and here really deserves it. This film is a tremendously intelligent and detailed homage. The production design by Ben Van Os is outstanding. Films about artists don't have to look like their art, of course; that can look self-satisfied and obtuse - like the clever but faintly redundant pastiche sequences in Julie Taymor's Frida - and to be frank, the sheer mass of controlled visual detail sometimes threatens to refrigerate and paralyse the movie. There were times, in fact, when I wondered what a movie about Vermeer's life that wasn't trying to imitate his art would look like. Exactly the same, maybe? Can the detail of his paintings be used as primary, real-world source material?

It is into this gilt frame, at any rate, that Scarlett Johansson daintily steps, playing Griet, a girl from a dignified but impoverished Protestant family, forced to take a post as domestic help to the Catholic Vermeer household in the prosperous town of Delft. "Keep clear of their Catholic prayers!" hisses her mother before Griet sets off. "Stop your ears!" She conceals her gorgeous hair within a modest traditional Dutch headdress, and does her best to fit in as a servant in a house full of dominant women. Essie Davis is Vermeer's highly strung, perpetually pregnant wife Catharina; Judy Parfitt is his formidable clay-pipe-smoking mother-in-law Maria Thins, and Joanna Scanlan gives a tough performance as Tanneke, the raw-boned serving woman who is the nearest thing Griet has to a friend.

Colin Firth, as Vermeer, must reconcile the domestic calm of the painter's family life with the life-force romantic-artist image that the director has evidently decided should be his look. He's the sort of long-haired, moody, intense-eyed guy who looks like he should be roistering around town and painting can-can dancers, but actually stays in en famille , reading and drinking contemplative mugs of beer while small children scramble on and off his lap, doing everything but watching television.

Webber's masterstroke is the use of Vermeer's eerie, empty studio, familiar from so many paintings but here untenanted except for the uncanny, robot-like wooden life model and, in one scene, the camera obscura device that is Vermeer's link with the modern world of image. Griet impresses Vermeer with her intuitive sense of light and colour and he is soon infatuated enough to want to paint her in secret while Griet models his wife's pearl earrings. Her ears are not pierced, so Vermeer tenderly contrives this penetration himself, and the metonymical deflowering of the virgin Griet is just explicit enough to work as both erotic encounter and pagan obeisance.

But the movie is more complicated than just being about erotic obsession sublimated into artistic rapture. This painting has been privately commissioned for Vermeer's wealthy patron, Van Ruijven: a lip-smacking performance from Tom Wilkinson. He has conceived a goatish desire for Griet and the idea of possessing her image appeals to his decadent aesthetic cupidity. But Van Ruijven also clearly understands, without anyone saying a word, that as a frequent and honoured visitor, he will have ample opportunity of forcing himself sexually on the serving maid Griet, and so the painting will be an exquisitely evil memento. So there is a real whiff of sulphur about the commission, in which the financially straitened Vermeer is ambiguously complicit: he is preparing to sell Griet body and soul, and the painting becomes an occult object of betrayal.

Webber gives a long, long close-up on Johansson's face as she models for that famous portrait study and the effect really is swooningly beautiful, though a little coercive - as if we were being ordered to swoon. Often, Firth and Johansson will gaze at each other, silent, stricken, he out of desire, she out of submissive deference, but it may be just that a sense that any dialogue at all is too crude an intrusion into this visual splendour. Girl With a Pearl Earring at times surrounds itself with an art-gallery hush, but it is just so ambitious, and intriguing, and beautiful, you will find yourself immobile in front of its canvas, drinking in the details.

Philip French

Vermeer's masterpiece is bought vividly to life thanks to brilliant cinematography.

A feminist subspecies of the traditional biopic has arisen in recent years in which recognition is demanded for the women living in the shadow of famous artists. In Percy Adlon's Céleste, the centre of interest is not Marcel Proust, but his devoted housekeeper. Camille Claudel sets out to rescue the sculptress exploited by Auguste Rodin. Tom and Viv seeks justice for TS Eliot's maligned wife. Frida claims equality for the painter married to the bombastic Diego Rivera. Surviving Picasso puts the case for the artists' crushed mistresses, Françoise Gilot and Dora Maar.

For his musical, Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim invented a mistress-model, wittily called Dot, for an egotistical Seurat to work into La Grande Jatte. Something similar, though more sombre, lies at the centre of Peter Webber's Girl With a Pearl Earring, a film of the Tracy Chevalier novel.

The movie's central conceit is that there was a teenage maid called Griet (Scarlett Johansson) in the cramped household of Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) in Delft who posed for his Girl With a Pearl Earring. This is the painting from around 1665 that sold for the equivalent of 25p in the 1880s and now hangs in the Hague. There is also the invention that Vermeer, who sold as few paintings as his admirer Van Gogh did, had a rich patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson drawing on the overbearing, upper-class side of his repertoire). In this wealthy merchant's house hangs View of Delft and his support, nurtured by the painter's mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), keeps the cash-strapped Vermeers from starving. When Griet arrives to take up her post, she sees the Vermeers' bankrupt neighbours weeping beside the canal as the bailiffs take away their furniture.

This film, then, is about art and exploitation and how a young woman attempts to resist a system designed to make her hopelessly vulnerable. Griet is a Protestant in a Catholic household. The artist's permanently pregnant wife and her cruel children despise and resent the pretty newcomer. The lecherous merchant Van Ruijven lusts after Griet and, in lieu of realising his desires, he agrees to have a painting made of her to leer over in his private gallery. This turns out to be Girl With a Pearl Earring.

There is in Vermeer's paintings of servant girls a sense of passivity, of quiet acceptance of their place, that led Claude Goretta to call his celebrated 1977 film The Lacemaker, a reference to the Vermeer painting in the Louvre that he compares with the resigned state of Isabelle Huppert at the end of the movie. But this applies only to the surface appearance of the subservient Griet. Though illiterate, she's strong-willed and intelligent. Vermeer, who appropriately remains a quiet, mysterious man, recognises her natural understanding of art and a sensitivity superior to that of his petulant wife and domineering mother-in-law. She becomes involved in mixing his paints and in the shaping of his work, subtly producing a change in the composition of Woman With a Water Jug.

Does Vermeer lust after Griet the way his patron does? Is desire for the model sublimated or expressed in the work of art? Griet feels she is being possessed and when her ear is painfully pierced by Vermeer and her blood flows, it is clear she is being symbolically deflowered. His mother-in-law abets in this act as a way of pleasing the rich patron and her role brings to mind Vermeer's earliest genre painting, The Procuress. Immediately after the piercing, Griet rushes off to surrender her real virginity to a boyfriend, a butcher's son of her own class.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is quiet, intelligent and well-acted. Olivia Hetreed's dialogue is plain and inoffensive in an old-fashioned schools-broadcasting manner. What most people will be impressed by, and carry away in their mind's eye, is the film's appearance. French cinematographer Eduardo Serra and his Dutch collaborators, the production designer Ben van Os and the costume designer Dien van Straalen, have given the movie a self-conscious beauty. The landscapes are out of Hobbema. The stern, black-dressed mother-in-law looks as if she has posed for Rembrandt or Hals. The interiors and exteriors of Delft resemble paintings by Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch and their contemporaries brought to life. Van Meegeren the forger never came near this.

Robert Davis

There’s something to be said for a film that’s most sensual moments involve the piercing of an ear and the removal of a bonnet--just a bonnet--from the head of a woman who always dresses in layers. But as Girl With A Pearl Earring demonstrates, it’s hard to make a convincing film about an artist. It’s not easy to understand, much less depict, why and how an artist creates, and translating the creation itself to a very different medium is tricky at best.

It’s easier to avoid all the complications and instead seize on a concrete element of the artist’s life for a simple, irrelevant story--about his love life or, say, his love life--illuminating nothing, but basking in the glow of Art with a capital A. The film goes one step further by telling the entirely fictional story of how Johannes Vermeer might have painted his most famous work. At the end of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, a piet� unexpectedly takes form and sheds new light on the movie’s themes, but Girl With A Pearl Earring attempts to do the opposite, to shed new light on the painting that takes form at its conclusion. It seems like a fun project but also a pointless one, especially if the story only intends to skim the surface of its subject. In one scene, a character is talking about one of Vermeer’s paintings, but he is shot such that his shoulder obscures the topic of his speech, and there you have the movie’s priorities in a nutshell.

Based on a novel, Girl With A Pearl Earring is the first feature by Peter Webber, and even if it doesn’t attempt to understand Vermeer, it does show a mastery of its own visual art. Every frame looks stunning, as if Webber and his crew surrounded themselves with Vermeer’s paintings and adopted his palette for the glowing yellow faces of the people dressed for tea and the deep blue suits of the men on the sidewalk, both of which subtly echo the dialog. The imitation ends with the film’s use of the frame, which is purely cinematic. Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a servant girl in Vermeer’s household and eventually the subject of the painting that shares the movie’s title. At one point, Griet is quietly setting the dinner table. The frame around her expands to include Vermeer, played by Colin Firth, who is watching her work. Then it expands again to show Vermeer’s mother-in-law watching Vermeer watching Griet, with his wife situated in the middle. His wife asks for help with her necklace to refocus his attention, and failing that, she snaps at Griet, asking her if she’s quite finished setting the table. This scene may not say much about Vermeer as an artist and it may not be very subtle, but it’s a visually graceful summary of the movie’s dramatic triangle.

Although she plays the film’s title figure, Johansson is often slinking around in the background. When Vermeer takes Griet’s hands to teach her how to grind the ingredients for paint, she draws them back abruptly. He’s gone too far. The movie benefits greatly from Johansson’s gift for understated delivery, but she’s less assured in this demure, largely non-verbal role than she was as a modern young woman in Ghost World and Lost in Translation. Some of the fault probably belongs to Webber or his editor for cutting so haphazardly among Johansson’s three main facial expressions--open-mouthed awe, eye-darting nervousness, and furrow-browed curiousness. As Griet is forming an opinion of her new employer, the shots jump from one expression to another, making it difficult for us to get a handle on her thoughts.

As a drama about unrequited romance, the film works well enough. The most tensely sensual scenes are the ones with the least potential for sex, and although Griet has the eye of every man in the story, the movie refuses to entertain a torrid affair between Vermeer and Griet, preferring instead to leave her as an enigma. This is commendable in a sense but also somewhat contradictory: the movie is trying to explain away the mystery of Vermeer’s painting, but it still hopes to claim some of that mystery for its invented characters.

Kam Williams

Not much is known about Johannes Vermeer except that he spent his entire life in Delft, being baptized on Halloween in 1632, marrying Catharina Bolnes in 1653, and leaving behind 11 children and a portfolio of 35 paintings. Alhough he died penniless in 1675, and his widow had to declare bankruptcy the following year, Vermeer has at least been appreciated posthumously over the ages and his works presently hang in the Louvre, The Hague, the Metropolitan, Buckingham Palace, and other leading museums and private collections around the world.

Nonetheless, this Dutch Master has remained a mystery even though his paintings have been immortalized. It should come as no surprise that talented tale spinners might be tempted to weave intriguing webs from the scant details available about his life, especially since similar speculations have spawned a cottage industry of historical fiction revolving around renowned artists.

In recent years the genre has enjoyed a renaissance, as evidenced by novels like Rembrandt's Eyes (1999) by Simon Schama and Tulip Fever (2000) by Deborah Moggachand, both of which were about Rembrandt. Even Vermeer has been the subject of such imaginative flights of fancy, including Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. (1999) and The Music Lesson (2000) by Katharine Weber.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is both the title of one of Vermeer's best-known oils and the name of the 2001 best-seller by Tracy Chevalier. Written from the perspective of the anonymous young girl who sat for that beguiling painting, Ms. Chevalier presents a plausible picture of the Netherlands in the 17th Century while fashioning a richly-textured relationship between the artist and his subject from the paucity of known facts.

Unfortunately, first-time director Peter Webber's screen version takes too many liberties with the truth, venturing way beyond the possible to the highly improbable. The result is an entertaining, but inauthentic, adaptation, a production which reads more like a Hollywood teensploit than a Holland historical epic.

Scarlett Johansson stars in the title role as Griet, a 17 year-old forced by her father's sudden blindness to take a position as a maid for the Vermeer family. It's hard to believe that this is the same actress who generated so much Oscar buzz for Lost in Translation (2003) and Ghost World (2000). Johannson appears to have been underestimated in this case by a director reluctant to ask any more depth of her than an open-mouthed, vacant stare.

The story opens in 1665 with Griet negotiating her way across Delft's commercial district towards her first day on the job at the Vermeers'. Like the most infuriating, infantile chick flick, the film proceeds to tip its hat by having her and the beefy butcher's son (Cillian Murphy) lock eyes for a lingering moment, an early signal that there's more sparks in store for this pair.

Meanwhile, Griet must toil, Cinderella style, for a dysfunctional medieval family made up of moody perfectionist Johannes (Colin Firth), his jealous wife (Essie Davie), his mercurial mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), his leering and lecherous patron (Tom Wilkinson), the 11 kids, and the rest of the help. The movie takes its own sweet time to develop, which might not have been a problem were it not simultaneously telegraphing its punches.

Devotees of uneventful mood pieces undoubtedly will savor Girl with a Pearl Earring's deliberate pacing, though only soap opera fans are likely to buy the plot twists. Besides the Studio Painting 101 primer on the lost art of mixing colors, this endurance test is akin to watching paint dry, literally and figuratively. Good (2 stars). Rated PG-13 for slight sexual content.

end of review.

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