Watching paint dry 

A review of Girl With a Pearl Earring

click to enlarge A lesser actress than Scarlett Johannson would have rendered Girl With a Pearl Earring dead on arrival.
  • A lesser actress than Scarlett Johannson would have rendered Girl With a Pearl Earring dead on arrival.

Girl With a Pearl Earring (PG-13)
Lions Gate

The old sarcasm, "That's about as exciting as watching paint dry," takes on new meaning with this lovely but lifeless film. Tracy Chevalier's novel, on which the film is based, is an imaginative treatment of the mysterious subject of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer's 1665 masterpiece "Girl in Turban" (aka "Girl With a Pearl Earring," aka the "Mona Lisa of the North").

Lucky for us, current Hollywood 'It' girl Scarlett Johannson, with her luscious lips, pale skin, wide eyes and sculpted jaw, bears a strong resemblance to the girl in Vermeer's famous painting. A lesser actress in this almost silent role would have rendered Girl With a Pearl Earring dead on arrival. But even the charming Johansson and her ability to withstand extreme close-ups can't liven up a film intentionally designed to be as still as a 17th-century portrait.

Girl opens with a naturally lighted shot of Griet (Johannson), carefully slicing carrots, beets, turnips and cabbage in a dark kitchen. It is not an exaggeration to say that these frames are the most colorful in the film, perhaps a symbol of the passing of Griet's girlhood. In short order, Johannes Vermeer, played by a scowling Colin Firth, and his prissy wife Catharina (Essie Davis), sweep into Griet's home and take her away to be their maid. Catharina is pregnant with her fifth or sixth child (who's counting -- the Vermeers sired a total of eleven before Johannes dropped dead at 48); Griet's father, a Delft tile maker is old and blind and can no longer provide for the family. Thus, Griet is carted off to the Catholic side of town to scrub the Vermeer's floors.

But quickly, she demonstrates an uncommon sensibility to Vermeer's work. She understands how the windows in his studio need to be washed to allow the right amount of light in, and she dabbles with composition, removing a chair from the setup for one of his works, insisting that the woman in the painting looks "trapped." Vermeer, lonely and frustrated in the midst of a chaotic household that includes a hateful, controlling mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), a stalking zombie of a daughter (Alakina Mann) and a wife who's been lactating for the last decade, soon has Griet mixing paints and eventually, modeling for him. (The portrait is a commission from Vermeer's lecherous patron Van Ruijven, played with moustache twisting villainy by Tom Wilkinson as a nobleman with an eye for fresh young peasant girls.)

The entire plot revolves around the painting of Griet, Vermeer's secret unspoken desires and Catharina's jealousy. Firth glowers and tugs on his tangled mane while staring desperately at Griet. Griet lowers her lids and curtsies. Catharina flits and feints and hurls innuendos at the sexually frustrated couple. Dialogue is sparse; camera pans are long and lingering; and a jittery, tinkling musical score announces that drama is happening here.

Ben Van Os' art direction and Eduardo Serra's cinematography are the stars of Girl With a Pearl Earring, and their work is superb. The city of Delft and a chilly, wet Netherlands winter are painted with exquisite detail and strong strokes. Every shot in the film is framed and lighted as a potential painting by Vermeer. But the human drama at the center of the film never quite reaches room temperature. We are witnessing greatness, we are reminded again and again, but Vermeer comes off as a pathetic slave to the demands of his wife and mother-in-law. The film's most gorgeous scenes -- for example, one where Griet takes off her white cap and reveals a lustrous auburn mane is stunning -- are lost in this otherwise cold, bloodless cinematic exercise by first-time director Peter Webber.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Kimball's Twin Peak

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