In Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname, Orson Welles remarks, while showing off his art collection, “This is one of 32 known Vermeers — 80 of which are in America.” With Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, you might boost that number to 81: Webber has in many ways made a copy of a Vermeer painting — and not just the titular one. Whatever else this historical-speculation drama is or is not, it definitely captures the look of a Vermeer in nearly all aspects of its composition — a weighty accomplishment that may not always benefit the overall film.
Based on a novel by Tracy Chevalier, Pearl Earring is not a biopic; rather, it’s an imagining of who the girl in Vermeer’s painting was, how she came to pose for him, and what their relationship — and life in his household — was like. According to the conceit of the story, the young woman’s name was Griet (Scarlett Johansson), and she was a maid — who only came into her service job in Vermeer’s house when her family fell on hard times.
The story line is itself very simple: Griet has a natural affinity for painting and quickly grasps a simple explanation of color theory given to her by the painter. The distant Vermeer (Colin Firth) finds in Griet a kind of soul-mate, a stark contrast to his lack of closeness with Catharina (Essie Davis, The Matrix Revolutions), his wife. Catharina has been relegated by her iron-willed mother (Judy Parfitt, Wilde) — who rules the house — to being a baby-making machine.
There’s just enough back-story to hint that Vermeer had tried to explain his art to Catharina, but with disastrous results; hence his intense attraction to Griet. Near the end of the film, in fact, Catharina bluntly asks why Griet and not herself is his model, only to be told, “Because you don’t understand!”
“And she does?” counters Catharina.
The answer, of course, is yes, and there lies the crux of the film’s drama. However, Pearl Earring stops short of granting Vermeer and Griet an affair. Their relationship is limited to a few tentative touches and telling glances, and is grounded in Vermeer’s art. The film depicts the famous artist as a lonely man who only wants someone to understand what he’s doing.
Griet, on the other hand, was raised for a somewhat more glorious life than that of a maid. In the real world depicted in this film, her expected future is bland domesticity with the butcher’s son (Cillian Murphy, 28 Days Later …); yet through Vermeer and his art, she has a brief chance — doomed from the onset — at something like the life she thinks she deserves. Webber’s film is very shrewd in this regard, suggesting much but stating little. This much of Pearl Earring is fine, but the story insists on dragging in another angle: Vermeer’s lecherous patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson, The Importance of Being Earnest), who brings an unnecessary dose of melodramatic villainy to the proceedings.
Pearl Earring is at its core a slender, fragile conceit about art and the human longing for “something more.” With the addition of Van Ruijven, however, it veers toward one of those hoary barnstormers where the oversexed bad guy comes up behind the virtuous heroine and drapes a diamond necklace around her neck to tempt her — a development that just doesn’t belong in this movie.
Which brings up the film’s other — and perhaps greater — problem. While individual components are all excellent in and of themselves — the cinematography, the use of color, the performances, even the ersatz Philip Glass musical score by Alexandre Desplat — they never actually merge into a single, unified work. The sum of Pearl Earring is less than its individual parts would suggest it could — and should — have been.
But see it, by all means. This is a thoughtful, beautiful-looking film hitting town in the midst of an especially lame movie season. Just be forewarned that Pearl Earring never quite crosses that line between intriguing filmmaking and great cinema.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke