Girl With A Pearl Earring

UK release date: Sep 8 2009

cast list

Colin Firth
Scarlett Johansson
Tom Wilkinson
Judy Parfitt

directed by
Peter Webber

Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s study of circa 1665, Girl with a Pearl Earring, shares characteristics of the Mona Lisa – it contains an enigmatic girl of whom nothing is known, whose expression suggests a smile and sadness. She wears a pearl earring and a blue smock and is looking at us over her left shoulder. The intrigue provided by the painting is the foundation for Tracy Chevalier’s book, on which Peter Webber has based his directorial debut.

Like the painting, the film’s storyline is understated and leaves questions unanswered. Of what action there is, it is neither shocking nor salicious, and while words are spoken, many more remain unsaid. The realities of life in service are starkly portrayed – from the grubby nature of the streets and water supply, to the carving up of a variety of livestock and vegetation by those below for those above. Griet is drawn into Vermeer’s family home, an unusual place dominated by a terrifying matriarch who runs her daughter’s life and that of her son-in-law, the artist himself. He spends much of his time in his studio, into which his wife will not set foot.

This restrictive environment provides an interesting forum for the acting talents of Scarlett Johansson as the new maid and eventual wearer of the earring, Griet, and Colin Firth as Vermeer. The latter, sporting a heavy metal frightwig which flaps decorously at all the right times, scarcely says anything at all for his first few scenes, leaving Griet unable to reply – for, as she is told on her first day at the Vermeer house by the artist’s wife, maids don’t speak unless spoken to.

The two leads are able to convey the notion of two people who each, despite social barriers, see within the other but recognise their situation prevents any further development of their relationship. Frustration shows through, however, and there must – and is – a resolution before proceedings conclude.

Into this intrigue of master-maid derring-do come a curious collection of 17th century Dutch characters, each of whom injects colour into an otherwise deliberately everyday story. Tom Wilkinson is solid as a buffoonish patron of the arts, while Joanna Scanlan creates a loveable housekeeper. Cast aside, the costumes, make-up and set departments create a Holland that is at once authentic and beautiful.

But this is a film less about the individual characters involved, or the time in which the story is set. Rather, it convincingly tells of two people who should be together not for love (that would be tedious), but because they understand each other professionally. Griet’s artistic observations bely her lack of education or status, and Vermeer simply recognises someone who sees as he does that the clouds are not white.

Girl with a Pearl Earring won’t be to the taste of those requiring fast action or a boy-meets-girl love story – in fact, Webber’s direction frequently presents confusing scenes without explanation and is overall long-winded. But for anyone prepared to be convinced that everyone deserves a chance in life to be themselves, and that within us all there is the capacity for greatness, this film will cause an enigmatic smile or two.

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