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Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Lion's Gate
2003 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 100 min. / Street Date May 4, 2004 / 26.98
Starring Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan, Alakina Mann
Cinematography Eduardo Serra
Production Designer Ben van Os
Art Direction Christina Schaffer
Film Editor Kate Evans
Original Music Alexandre Desplat
Written by Olivia Hetreed from the novel by Tracy Chevalier
Produced by 14 producers, too many
Directed by
Peter Webber

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In the midst of Jack Valenti's Academy screener embargo last fall, three DVDs arrived from Lion's Gate Films, an independent that didn't have to follow the lead of the MPAA. The only one I was eager to see was The Cooler. It was just okay, but Shattered Glass and Girl with a Pearl Earring were both excellent pictures that brought some intelligent ideas to bear.

Finally, here is a picture with a style with a direct bearing on its story. The cramped life in Delft, Holland in the 1600s is seen through the eyes of an overworked maid who is given a glimpse of the beauty of artistic inspiration. Instead of a vehicle for the hotter-than-hot Scarlett Johannsen, Pearl Earring is a convincing portrait of real relationships in a very unusual household.


With her tile-making father crippled, Griet (Scarlett Johanssen) takes a maid's position in the tense household of painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Vermeer's wife is a jealous, nervous wreck and his mother-in-law a tough customer. All are beholden to the painter's petty, capricious and lustful patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). Griet takes an interest in the paintings and shares an aesthetic secret with her employer, which drives the women of the household mad. Worse, Van Ruijven asks for Griet's portrait to be painted, a gambit that got his last "model" pregnant.

You can tell that Girl with a Pearl Earring is a serious picture: It's about the economics of living in the more or less bourgeois family of a great painter. Johannes Vermeer is a brooding and moody perfectionist who takes months to finish his work while his baby-factory wife broods in emotional abandonment and his flinty mother-in-law tries to figure out how to keep his commissions coming in. Obviously no businessman, Johannes agonizes over every detail of light and tone on his canvasses while trying to ignore the foolish soap opera around him.

Into this tinderbox comes the quiet and intense Griet, to be abused by three generations of ladies in the house. All maids are considered thievesand husband-stealers, and function as all-purpose scapegoats. The insecure wife grows angrier at Griet's poise under fire and assumes that there's something going on up in her husband's studio. The mother-in-law eventually realizes that Griet is not the problem, but the servant-employer relationship is like a stone wall of inequity.

Griet ends up having an "affair of art" with Vermeer, starting with her curiosity and growing as the painter realizes she's sensitive to the finer points of composition and can discern the play of colors in clouds. She mixes his paints and provides a second set of eyes that allow the painter to step back from his work ever so slightly.

Girl with a Pearl Earring doesn't inject a love affair - exactly - but instead a tentative series of scenes of muted emotion that suggest that Johannes and Griet are kindred spirits. Griet contends with the wife's growing rage (somewhat understandable) and the maliciousness of a Vermeer daughter. The tough cook grows to love Griet and the old lady in the house also finds she can trust her. She does three jobs while serving as the painter's aide, and also has a growing relationship with the local butcher apprentice (Cillian Murphy). But the toughest problem emerges when Griet catches the wandering eye of Vermeer's patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), a nasty and vain troublemaker who covets every young female in his sight. He insists that Vermeer paint a portrait of Griet, which has to be done in secret from the jealous wife. The mother-in-law finds herself on Griet's side of the problem, while Griet and Vermeer's attraction is played out in a painter's canvas instead of a bed.

Some reviewers choked on Girl with a Pearl Earring and claimed that "nothing happened." They must be blind. Just watching this beautiful picture is entertainment enough, as its gorgeous images are for once essential to the subject matter. 1 The painterly look of the show is more a function of the Dutch household with its northern windows and the beauty of the architecture and rooms; we get the idea that this affluent but cash-poor household might really be accurate. Pale Griet with her invisible eyebrows contrasts well with the always teary-faced wife and the red-cheeked Van Ruijven. When director Webber's camera concentrates on cook Tenneke's (Joanna Scanlan) frantic food preparation, the instant still lifes of onions being chopped and glassware polished seem worthy of Rembrandt.

By the time Griet sits for the title portrait we're prepared; we understand that we've been watching an imaginary backstory to explain the special intensity of the famous painting. Scarlett Johansson resembles the girl with the single pierced ear closely enough and the creation of the work of art becomes an aesthetic substitute for passion. The ear-piercing is suggestive of initiation and the longing on the face of the girl in the painting expresses all the invisible waves between painter and subject. No wonder the wife tries to destroy the painting - the intimacy is all there for anyone to see.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a delicate mix of quiet moments and thoughful observances. Johannsen strikes the right chord throughout, Colin Firth (Bridget Jones' Diary, Shakespeare in Love) is brooding as the painter and Judy Parfitt and Essie Davis excellent as threatened females. Tom Wilkinson is completely under control as the heel of a "gentleman," providing an impressive contrast with his role in the excellent In the Bedroom.

Music can ruin a picture like this one but Alexandre Desplat's melodies lift the film without forcing artificial moods onto the rich and attractive images. I've never even contemplated a movie about the daily life of a great painter, which just goes to prove that there are still original story ideas waiting to be found.

Lion's Gate's DVD of Girl with a Pearl Earring does the movie justice with this clear and colorful presentation. The enhanced picture keeps the colors and tones dark and rich. When Griet worries about the studio light changing if she cleans the windows, we can understand her concern.

The main extra is a cable channel "making of a scene" behind-the-scenes docu that introduces the creatives well, but then proceeds with a primer in filmmaking that wants to be illuminating but communicates little but an "independent spirit" hip-ness. The methods by which the banquet scene was shot are divulged as if they were secrets or revelations, when in reality the cameraman's taste and the director's decisions are largely intuitive and self-evident in the finished film. The real benefit is seeing the accomplished actors preparing and in stage waits.

Savant's screener came without a case or packaging, leaving me to comment only that the cover illustration hints at an affair between artist and model which doesn't really take place. The cast run lists a "Van Leeuwenhoek" near the bottom, which makes me wonder if a scene wasn't deleted.

A music video using Johannsson and the artist's studio set is an amusing if irrelevant addition. We do get to see the actress in a modern context and with an entirely different look.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Girl with a Pearl Earring rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: tv BTS promo, deleted scene
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2004


1. I'm losing my patience with new films that are so relentlessly ugly - looking. If they aren't shot on DVD they're trying to look as if they were. When are filmmakers going to rediscover the joys of handsome images?

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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