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USA 2003
Directed by
Peter Webber
95 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Ruth Williams
4 stars

Girl With A Pearl Earring

Synopsis: The setting Is Delft, Holland 1665. After her father is blinded in a kiln explosion, seventeen-year-old Griet (Scarlett Johansson) has to leave home to take up a position as a maid so that she can support her family. Griet is employed in the household of Johannes Vermeer, where she is soon distracted from her thankless job as a maid by the enticing world of the artist.

I really enjoyed this film, for many reasons. I don’t have a broad knowledge of art history, so although I recognised the painting on which the story is based, I knew nothing about Johannes Vermeer. It turns out that in reality, little is known about the man other than what was collected from official records of the time.

This film is a fine example of how a writer can take a basic question and turn it into a satisfying story. Tracy Chevalier wrote the book on which the film is based. When she was nineteen, she had a poster of the painting on her bedroom wall. She remembers one day looking at it, and wondering what Vermeer must have done to cause the girl in the painting to have a look on her face that could be both sad and happy at the same time. She relates how the story tumbled out of her mind onto the page. Her collaboration with screenwriter, Olivia Hetreed was equally as fortuitous, with the two women striking up a close relationship. Chevalier even compliments Hetreed’s adaptation saying she felt the screenwriter had taken the themes further in ways that she would have liked to have done in the novel.

Probably the most powerful aspect of the film is the combination of the beautiful cinematography by Eduardo Serra and the way in which the story explores Vermeer’s perception of his world. Much has been written and many films made about the lonely life of the artist, driven to express his or her view of the world to those around them who may have a more practical relationship to life (see, for example, Camille Claudel, 1988, or any film about Van Gogh). When Vermeer, played convincingly by Colin Firth, realises that Griet possesses the eye of an artist, he is drawn to her as one is to a like-minded soul.

The tension that this connection causes in the household is also familiar. Griet’s humility and youthful looks immediately confront Vermeer’s wife, Catharina played by Essie Davis. The two women actually have much more in common than they seem to realise. They are both at the mercy of an era when their place in society could be destroyed by as little as a malicious rumour. The twelve-year-old Cornelia takes an immediate dislike to Griet. Her efforts to tarnish Griet’s name soon begin to complicate Griet’s life. One senses things can only turn out for the worst.

Scarlett Johansson gives a fine performance in the role of Griet despite having very little dialogue. Whilst the novel tells the story through the thoughts of this young woman, the film relies almost entirely on the audience being able to interpret what is going on via the expressions on her face. When the actual painting is revealed at the end of the film, it feels like Chevalier must have had access to the mind of this unknown girl. Gazing at anonymous faces in famous paintings will never be the same.




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