Based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the fictional story of how Johannes Vermeer created his famous painting as a young maid works for his tumultuous household. Directed by Peter Webber and screenplay by Olivia Hetreed, the film explores the world of Vermeer’s art as he finds a muse in this young woman who would inspire him to make one of his great paintings. Starring Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Essie Davis, Cillian Murphy, Judy Parfitt, Alakina Mann, and Tom Wilkinson. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a ravishing drama from Peter Webber.
Following an accident that left her tile-painting father (Chris McHallem) blind, Griet (Scarlett Johansson) goes to work as a maid for the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Arriving at his already tumultuous home where his wife Catharina (Essie Davis) is pregnant, Griet is assigned to help out around the house and clean Vermeer’s painting studio as he’s still working on a painting. Griet is also assigned to fetch meet for the family with their maid Tanneke (Joanna Scanlan) where Griet catches the eye of the butcher apprentice Pieter (Cillian Murphy). After Catharina gives birth to a new baby boy, Griet is asked by Catharina’s mother Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt) to send a message to Vermeer’s patron Pieter Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) for a party to celebrate the baby’s birth and the completion of Vermeer’s new painting.
After taking notice of Griet cleaning the studio, Vermeer gets another idea for a new painting as she suddenly becomes his new assistant to help mix colors and such. Though Griet is having a wonderful relationship with Pieter, she is drawn to Vermeer’s world as she helps him fetch things while doing other duties around the house. After Vermeer completes a new painting and another child coming, Van Ruijven wants another painting as he wants Griet involved much to her discomfort. Vermeer makes a compromise to Van Ruijven to paint Griet alone as only Van Ruijven, Griet, Vermeer, and Maria Thins would know about this painting. With Catharina restless over Griet’s presence around Vermeer and Van Ruijven trying to go after her, Griet becomes uncomfortable with the role she’s playing. Even as it leads to a breakdown of what Vermeer is trying to make.
The film is a fictional idea of how Johannes Vermeer created one of the great paintings of the 17th Century told largely from the perspective of the girl in that painting. It’s a film that is about art and how this simple young, shy woman would inspire Vermeer to create some of these great paintings. Even as she is someone who understands what Vermeer is trying to make with these paintings where she would help him see things. Vermeer would let her be part of his world that only a few people can enter as she understands the idea of lighting and color that his wife couldn’t understand. Yet, there would people like Van Ruijven who wants Griet to be in his service as she hears stories about what Van Ruijven did to a maid some years earlier.
Olivia Hetreed’s screenplay does manage to create a story that is about these two people caught up in this world of paintings where Griet is this participant who reluctantly aids her master. Meanwhile, Vermeer is an artist who has a difficult time trying to create great paintings as he is also under pressure to deliver as his mother-in-law is trying to hide the family’s financial problems from her daughter. The reason they need a patron like Van Ruijven is so he can buy Vermeer’s paintings as he sets his sights on Griet. Yet, Griet is aware of Van Ruijven’s intentions while finding herself caught up in Vermeer’s world as there’s also an alternative in the form of Pieter who wants to give her a simpler life. For Griet, it adds to the sense of confusion as she would eventually be caught up in a world of trouble.
Peter Webber’s direction is intoxicating in the way he presents the film by re-creating 17th Century Delft as it represents a world where Griet is obviously an outsider. Many of Webber’s compositions has a truly astonishing look from the way he frames his actors in a scene as if he’s creating moving paintings. Even as he maintains a restraint in some of the drama with the exception of some emotionally-driven scenes that involves Catharina’s sense of resentment towards Griet. Webber also knows how to set up key moments of how Vermeer creates his paintings to establish this unique relationship between painter and this young maid. Overall, Webber creates a truly gorgeous yet engrossing drama about the world of art.
Cinematographer Eduardo Serra does magnificent work with the film‘s evocative photography from the blue-gray look of many of the wintertime exteriors to the lush array of lights for some of the film‘s nighttime interiors as if Serra is recreating the look of a Vermeer painting. Editor Kate Evans does nice work with the editing as a lot of the cutting is very straightforward while maintaining a leisured pace for the film. Production designer Ben van O, along with set decorator Cecile Heideman and art director Christina Schaffer, does fantastic work with the look of recreating 17th Century Delft with its bridges and homes along with the box that is the camera obscura.
Costume designer Dien van Straalen does superb work with the costumes from the lavish clothing of Van Ruijven as well as elegant dresses that Catharina and Maria Thins wear. Hair and makeup designer Jenny Shircore does terrific work with the look of Van Ruijven to display his grand personality. Sound editor Julian Slater does excellent work with the sound to capture the intimacy of Vermeer at work as well as some of the raucous sounds of the Vermeer household. The film’s score by Alexandre Desplat is a major highlight for the film for its evocative orchestral themes to play up the sense of drama and melancholia. Filled with lush string arrangements and tingling sounds of piano and other instruments, Desplat’s score is among one of his best as well as a key reason for the film’s success.
The casting by Leo Davis is incredible for the ensemble that is created as it includes some notable small roles from Joanna Scanlan as the head maid Tanneke, Gabrielle Reidy and Chris McHallem as Griet’s parents, and Anna Popplewell as Vermeer’s eldest daughter Maertge. Alakina Mann is wonderful as Vermeer troublemaking daughter Cornelia who despises Griet and is willing to do anything to make her life terrible. Essie Davis is excellent as Vermeer’s wife Catharina who tries to deal with her husband’s work while being unaware of what is at stake. Judy Parfitt is brilliant as Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria Thins who is aware of the role Griet plays in the paintings as she also tries to shield the family’s financial issues from her daughter.
Cillian Murphy is wonderful as the butcher apprentice Pieter who becomes the one person who cares for Griet as he offers her a different, simpler world as he also brings a low-key charm to the performance. Tom Wilkinson is great as patron Van Ruijven who brings a larger-than-life presence as a man who is filled with greed and wanting to control Vermeer as well as trying to go after Griet. Colin Firth is remarkable as the painter Johannes Vermeer as he brings a very restrained yet touching performance as an artist who finds inspiration in his young maid while taking her under his wing.
Finally, there’s Scarlett Johansson in what is definitely an outstanding performance in the role of Griet. While her role doesn’t require for her to say a lot, Johansson’s performance is truly engaging in the way she displays the fragility of a young shy girl dealing with the new world she’s in while being drawn to the world of Vermeer. The performance is also very minimalist in the way Johansson portrays this young girl where she’s allowed to observe her surroundings as well as not overplaying the part to express her emotions in some very intense scenes. It is really a career-defining performance for an actress who was only 18 when she played the part.
The 2004 Region 1 DVD from Lions Gate presents the film in its original 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio for the widescreen format. Along with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound in English with English and Spanish subtitles, the DVD features a few special features such as the film’s trailer and a music video by Truman for the song Girl with a Pearl that features Scarlett Johansson. The big special feature on the DVD is a 30-minute Anatomy of a Scene special from the Sundance Channel. Featuring interviews with Johansson, director Peter Webber, novelist Tracy Chevalier, and members of the film’s crew, they discuss the making of the banquet scene to reveal how it was made and what was to establish as it’s a truly brilliant special feature.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a marvelous film from Peter Webber that features a phenomenal performance from Scarlett Johansson. Armed with a great ensemble cast that includes Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, and Cillian Murphy along with amazing technical work that includes Eduardo Serra’s cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s score. It’s a film that explores the world of art as it presents the idea of how Vermeer made his famed painting. In the end, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a stunning yet mesmerizing film from Peter Webber.
© thevoid99 2012
I've been interested in this movie for a while, but your review -- especially your description of the cinematography -- really makes me eager to see it. And what a great cast!
It's a very different take on the book which I've read before seeing it back in 2003. It's a really interesting film about the world of art and the cinematography is one of its highlights.
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