If there’s such a thing as a defining moment in Peter Webber’s splendid theatrical feature debut Girl with a Pearl Earring, it arrives just after the painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) and his family’s comely, full-lipped new maid (who else but Scarlett Johansson?) have viewed together—side by side, underneath a rug—a camera obscura that houses the likeness of one of the master’s paintings. Startled by the reproduction of a canvas inside this coffin-shaped box, the maid, Griet, asks, “Is it real?” Vermeer replies: “It’s an image.”
Now that I like. In a household (nay, a society) where souls live or die by appearances and the perceptions thereof, this exchange of two kindreds tersely illumines their central dilemma. It doesn’t matter to the troika of wicked witches who surround Vermeer (his weeping, shrieking, pinch-faced wife; his shrewd, business advisor mother-in-law; and his vain, scurrilously dishonorable little daughter) that the man never consummates his keen passion for Griet: it is horror enough that she rouses such depths in him. The resulting film, set in a ravishing recreation of mid-17th-century Delft, blooms into an exquisitely tense tragicomedy of manners.
There’s very little dialogue in Olivia Hetreed’s supple adaptation of the Tracy Chevalier novel. Webber and Hetreed tell this story, a speculation of how Vermeer came to paint his masterpiece, almost entirely in visual terms. It’s a film about interiors, and we’re never told what to think, either by voice-over narration (there is none) or by an insistent soundtrack. Webber uses Alexandre Desplat’s plaintive, gamelan-inspired score sparingly, a choice that effectively heightens the music when you do hear it. A distant, muffled piano, as if played by a deliberately unsteady hand, periodically states the nervous, echoing main theme; in a later variation, flute, strings and celesta restate the melody in unison, and the music shimmers.
Girl with a Pearl Earring may be a lesson in art appreciation: it is, however, as a feast, not a lecture. Some of the most glorious sights detail how to pestle pigments and mix colors. A close-up of cobalt blue being mixed in a ceramic dish seems as essential to consider as any plot point. The mortared malachite and vermilion merging with linseed oil parallel the slowly fomenting relationship between Vermeer and Griet. There can be no argument that the film’s erotic climax takes place when Griet, posing in the artist’s studio, removes the crown-concealing, white cloth cap she has worn in every scene up to that point (maidens were forbidden to wear their hair uncovered), and Vermeer stands half in the doorway, silently watching the mass of thick red curls cascade her milky skin, beholding her obsessed and transfixed. It’s ocular adultery.
Firth and Johansson deserve a great deal of credit for making these wordless encounters work. Their performances might be dismissed simply because neither has an opportunity to emote on a grand scale. Yet this is the most difficult kind of acting to do well: the non-showy roles where passions, though suppressed, are most definitely felt. Johansson, whom I disliked with vigor in Lost in Translation, has found her era in 1660s Holland. She looks “made for it.” As for Firth, I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed him as much. The longhaired wig and the beard that never advances beyond three-day stubble, I venture, liberate him to a greater expressive range.
As the other women in Vermeer’s life, Essie Davis and Judy Parfitt, wife and mother-in-law respectively, are as delicious as bitter greens. Davis, the Australian actress who won an Olivier award last year for playing Stella Kowalski in the National Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire, memorably characterizes Catharina as a wan, frightened-looking virago whose visage is so wet with tears by her final scene that her face seems to want to slough off from the rest of her body. There is no word for Davis’s work here except marvelous. Parfitt, with her pointy black caps and white cylindrical collars, might be auditioning for a Brothers Grimm retrospective. Her Maria astutely balances devotion to her daughter with a practical eye on her son-in-law’s patronage. Maria may resent Griet, but she recognizes that maid inspires master.
Cillian Murphy, as a flirtatious young butcher lad, and Tom Wilkinson, as a rakish old cow, are excellent counterpoints of light and dark in Griet’s universe. The cinematographer, Eduardo Serra, who also photographed The Wings of the Dove, renders the gray, watery cityscapes of Delft and the opulent dusk of the Vermeer home magnificently. Serra falters only in a single shot: a wide composition of an improbable powder blue sky (complete with fluffy clouds) looks altogether out of place in a wintry palette. The sound design isn’t exactly flawless, but the sets (by Ben van Os) and the costumes (by Dien van Straalen) enhance the filmmakers’ alternately earthy and dream-derived insights into love, art, and class warfare. – NPT