December 2003

Reviewed by Julian Roman
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Directed by: Peter Webber
Producers: Andy Paterson and Anand Tucker
Screenwriter: Olivia Hetreed
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematographer: Eduardo Serra
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy and Essie Davis
Rated: PG-13
  Based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier


Girl with a Pearl Earring is a masterpiece of production and subtlety. Every frame is a work of art. The film is just incredible to look at. It takes you away from modern times and shows you the world of the 17th century Netherlands. It doesnít overpower you with trick photography or special FX. It relies on set design, location shooting, and matte paintings. This film is a throwback to the films of the 30ís and 40ís. It weaves a simple tale of romance, fleshed out with extraordinary characters. Nothing is forced. The story is slowly developed, layered like the painting of its namesake. The actors exist in an ancient world of society and structure. Morality was everywhere, cherished by some and decadently ignored by others. Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of the best films of the year. Itís a period piece, an arthouse film through and through. It wonít appeal to a broad audience. But I would expect any avid moviegoer to enjoy this film, appreciate the finesse in its style. Films of this quality are so rarely made, itís a breath of fresh air when you see them.

The film takes place in 1665 Amsterdam. Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a peasant girl that is forced to work as a maid in the house of the famous painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). She is very demure, a product of her religion and upbringing. Sheís also very different than the average peasant girl of the time. Her father was an artist and she appreciates the beauty of creativity. Her most prized possession is a square of tile that her father painted for her. Work in the Vermeer household is tedious and difficult. She cleans, fetches the meat, and runs the errands of Vermeerís wife (Essie Davis) and mother in law (Anna Popplewell). Vermeer is a very brooding person. Inspiration is fleeting. He spends his hours locked away in his studio. He paints portraits for wealthy patrons, especially a vile man called Van Ruijven, played brilliantly by the awesome Tom Wilkinson. Vermeer despises this work, but must do it to support the lifestyle of his wife and family. Money is running thin. Vermeerís mother-in-law desperately wants him to paint another commissioned portrait of Van Ruijven and his family. His wife has just had a baby and the wet nurse is eating them out of house and home.

Griet is giving the task of cleaning Vermeerís studio. He begins to notice her when she inquires if she should clean the windows. She doesnít want to disturb the light. Also, she moves a chair that was obstructing the view of his easel. Vermeer begins to see that she has an understanding of structure, the elements of a painting. Soon her duties include helping Vermeer mix the paint. He becomes enthralled by her. She is also overcome by his presence, but is ruled by her virtue. There is a fantastic scene where he asks her to take her hair down. She always wears a bonnet. It is improper for her to wear it down. She refuses, but he steals a look at it anyway. It is a remarkable scene, filled with sexual and romantic tension. Grietís beauty is not lost on the other characters. Vermeerís wife is sick with jealously. His daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann), who is not much younger than Griet, is also jealous of the attention she receives. She goes out of her way to make her life difficult. The local butcherís son, Pieter (Cillian Murphy), falls in love with Griet. She rebuffs his advances, but secretly has affection for him. He warns her to remember her place. The most dangerous suitor is Van Ruijven. He sees her as another sexual conquest. His insipid flirting becomes more dangerous when he is rejected. He decides to commission Vermeer to paint Griet. The request is scandalous, the master of the household forced to paint the maid. This is the point of the story when the tension really begins to rise. The encounters with Griet and Vermeer are beautiful to behold. They are clearly taken with each other, but must be careful of their surroundings. He sees her as the essence of beauty. The painting is his finest masterpiece. It only needs one thing to be complete. He makes her wear his wifeís finest pearl earrings. It is a betrayal of her, but is absolutely necessary for his art. Beauty is everything, worth every risk and every cost.

Scarlett Johansson has become the finest actress of her generation. The film focuses entirely on her. Itís her movie. I think sheís almost in every scene. Her portrayal of Griet is a study in eloquence. Nothing is overdone, there are no soap opera moments. She plays her as demure, but not naÔve. She feels love, understands beauty, but is aware of her situation. She has the most to lose of anyone in this circumstance. Her mannerisms are so well done. There is a scene where Vermeer touches her hand and she freezes. A boundary has been crossed by this act. A master cannot touch his servant in such a familiar way. No words are spoken, itís a purely physical scene, but brilliantly done with subtlety. Itís amazing to watch. Scarlett Johansson has my utmost admiration for this role. She understands place and timing. It is a difficult thing to be understated and convey meaning at the same time. Itís astounding she made this movie and the phenomenal Lost in Translation in the same year.

Eduardo Serra is the director of photography, the cinematographer. He does amazing work in this film. The texture, the softness of light, the use of shadows, I can rave on for hours about how this movie looks. His past work is pretty impressive. Heís primarily done French films, but weíve seen his artistry in Unbreakable and What Dreams May Come. Here is a guy that knows what heís doing. Heís only directed one movie. He needs to direct more. The man has vision, pure and simple. Anyone that understands filmmaking at this level deserves to be directing movies.

I think that every facet of this film is Oscar worthy. No stone can be left unturned in handing out praise. The direction, editing, screenplay, set design, music, costumes, every part of this movie deserves acknowledgement. Itís impossible to write about it all, so Iíll concentrate on the filmís director, Peter Webber. This is his first wide release film. Everything heís done before has been on television. A director is solely responsible for the final product. His orchestration of the movie is astonishing. He surrounded himself with talented people and used their work wisely. I stress again that no part of this movie is overdone. Everything fits perfectly in place. It’s important to note that Girl with a Pearl Earring is based on a novel by Tracy Chevalier. It was a very popular book and critical success. I donít know how true to the story it is, but Webber adapts it grandly to the screen. I can’t imagine fans of the book not liking the film, no matter how different it is.

I obviously loved this film. It pains me to temper my review, but in good conscience I must. I know that this is a film that doesn’t have a broad appeal. It’s a period art film and most people hate that genre. I’m not a big fan either. Most period movies are pretentious and boring. That being said, there are many great period films. This film is one of them. If you appreciate romance, storytelling, and beauty, I highly recommend Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Girl with a Pearl Earring opens nationwide in theatres December 25th.