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Girl with a Pearl Earring
Scarlett Johansson knocks my socks off, but her latest film does not. Her performance in Girl with a Pearl Earring is excellent, as always, but Johansson's character, Griet, is nowhere near as interesting as Charlotte from Lost in Translation. Additionally, Girl with a Pearl Earring fails to live up to the ad campaign's claim that it is a sizzling drama about forbidden passion. In truth, the sparks are few and far between.
I suspect that those who have read the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring is based on will enjoy this film ten times more than everyone else. Novels have a way of providing many emotional details which were simply reduced to gestures in the film. If you haven't read the novel, and you're not a devout follower of Scarlett Johansson's film career, I recommend passing on Girl with a Pearl Earring entirely.
It is clear the film was made with a great deal of care and attention to detail. The lighting is exquisite in every scene and the "live" recreations of famous Vermeer works such as The Girl with the Wine Glass, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and, of course, Girl With a Pearl Earring are fantastic. But the magic of seeing a painting come to life can only carry a film so far. This is the inherent problem with movies about visual artists: watching someone paint isn't 98 minutes worth of interesting.
With Vermeer, the situation is even more complicated. Not much is known about Vermeer's life or the circumstances under which he made his art. The film is as much a basic telling of what life was like in 17th century Holland as it is a biography of the painter. For example, Vermeer shows Johansson's character, a maid named Griet, how to mix paint by combining water with chunks of vermillion and mashing them into a paste using a mortar. While this is fairly interesting, I wouldn't necessarily qualify it as entertaining. Unlike other films about painters such as The Mystery of Picasso or Pollock which attempt to understand the mind of a master, Girl with a Pearl Earring, digs no deeper than your average "Biography" show on A & E. Johannes Vermeer is portrayed as little more than an ordinary guy who paints to pay the bills.
But the film isn't about Vermeer as much as it is about the maid, Griet, who will eventually pose for Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring. Though Griet doesn't speak more than twenty-five sentences in the entire film, Johansson's eyes and gestures speak volumes. Moreover, the director allows her to be the focal point of every scene, sometimes eliminating all other elements besides Johannson's face from the frame.
I was surprised to discover director Peter Webber's previous work has been for television. I thought for sure the man had been a cinematographer. The actual cinematographer, Eduardo Serra, worked on a number of "deliberately paced" art films including The Widow of St. Pierre and Wings of the Dove. Somehow, this filmmaking team made a beautiful, but ultimately stale film that fails to mine the chemistry between Griet and Vermeer. Though Girl with a Pearl Earring is not a completely cold fish, it doesn't get past first base, even figuratively. They even fail to capture the simple "forbidden glance." In a scene where Griet benignly sets the table while being eyed by Vermeer, Colin Firth's eyes seem to be set to "annihilate" rather than "undress."
The most significant sexual tension mistakenly exists between Griet and Van Ruijven (Vermeer's patron played by Tom Wilkinson). Van Ruijven is accustomed to having his way with Vermeer's muses and Wilkinson is remarkably predatory as he stalks Griet through rows of hanging laundry. There is a complete lack of sexual tension between Griet and her legitimate suitor, Peter. The role is capably played by 28 Days Later Cilllian Murphy, it's just that the character has no purpose in the story.
Ultimately, Girl with a Pearl Earring is kind of a "collector's film." Johansson is great, but the film itself isn't worth recommending. If you're like me and have seen every Scarlett Johansson film since Manny & Lo, you might as well see this one. Ditto if you have read the novel. Otherwise, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a definite pass.
-Megan A. Denny