Have you ever gazed intently at a famous painting and wondered how it got made, who its subjects
were, and what their lives were really like? In "Girl with a Pearl Earring," director Peter
Webber attempts to answer those questions, filling in the blanks behind one of Holland's most
endearing portraits by master painter Johannes Vermeer. The film is based off of the novel by the
same name by Tracy Chavalier, which carefully describes the relationship between Vermeer and a
servant girl named Griet, who eventually becomes his muse. Quiet and slow moving, it's a period
piece without passion. Though delicately expressed and beautifully captured, the film moves along
uneventfully, failing to connect the true spark behind the inspiration.
The setting is Delft, Holland. The year, 1665. After a tragic kiln explosion that leaves her
father blind, a young Griet realizes she must find work quickly to support her family. So she
takes up a job as a maid, cleaning various households until finally landing a more permanent job
at the house of Maria Thins. Thins is the mother in law of master artist, Johannes Vermeer, a
very reclusive and mysterious painter who works quietly and uninterrupted in a private studio.
And Vermeer is married to Thins' daughter, Catharina, a very devout Catholic who has bore many of
Vermeer's children. Among them, the mischievous Cornelia.
But times are tough for the family, heavily reliant on Vermeer's commissions. Taking months to
complete a single work, Vermeer works almost exclusively for one man, Van Ruijven, an art connoisseur
with a sexual interest in Vermeer's subjects. With money running out, Vermeer's mother in law
arranges a business dinner to solicit yet another commission from Van Ruijven. And while at dinner,
it's no surprise that Van Ruijven takes a liking to Griet, secretly wishing a painting of her all to
himself. Desperate for money, Maria urges Vermeer to take the offer, while keeping his new
inspiration a secret behind her daughter's back.
Such a secret within the same, small household is very difficult to hide. But the family
is desperate, trying to maintain their standard of living while keeping the peace in the
household. With pre-arranged meetings, Griet and Vermeer begin to share affinities for
composition, color, and the camera obscura unbeknownst to Catharina. And simultaneously,
Van Ruijven uses his influence and upper hand to try and steal a little of Vermeer's
inspiration for himself while Cornelia uses her jealousy to try and disrupt the family
harmony. Caught in a world that rejects her, Griet finds herself the object of affection
of three different men: a humble butcher's boy named Pieter, the slithering Van Rujiven,
and even the artist himself, Johannes Vermeer. All on the way toward becoming the "Girl
with the Pearl Earring."
There are very few facts about the life and times of Johannes Vermeer. He was born in the small
town of Delft in 1632, the son of a silk weaver and art dealer, and slowly acquired the skills of a
painter through an apprenticeship with either Carel Fabritius or Leonaert Bramer. A converted
Catholic, he married Catharina Bolnes in April 1653 and the two had 11 children while living in the
house of Maria Thins, Vermeer's mother in law. Vermeer later joined the Guild of St. Luke and worked
professionally as a painter while representing other artists as a dealer. But after only 43 short
years, Vermeer died of a stroke or heart attack, possibly the result of stress as his family was under
considerable strain during wartime with France and the Netherlands. Out of the 35 paintings that
remain, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is probably his most famous.
Thematically, the film is very similar to "Lost in Translation," another work starring Scarlett
Johansson. In both films, the two main characters are brought together out of circumstance and drawn
together through a mutual understanding - being lost in life and a foreign place or being
misunderstood and sharing a keen perception for composition. Yet what makes the characters in this
film different from the characters in "Lost in Translation" is that they do not have any subtext.
Griet is practically forbidden to talk to Vermeer and there is nothing deeper or significant about the
two other than the fact that one is a maid, the other an artist, and they both are intrigued by light
and shadow. In "Lost in Translation," we get to know Bob and Charlotte, a little about their lives,
their marriages, their lifestyles, and their aspirations. But here, we don't get even the slightest
sense of that. Does Griet aspire to be more than a maid? What does Vermeer enjoy about painting?
And why go to great efforts to sabotage a relationship that doesn't exist?
The adapted screenplay by Olivia Hetreed is faithful to the book by Tracy Chevalier. And
there is no questioning its authenticity. But adapting a novel verbatim doesn't always
make for the most exhilarating film. Here, the characters remain repressed, unable to
explore their true emotions. And it's almost deflating in the sense that the painting
was not the result of passion or love, but the result of necessity or survival. With very
little dialogue and very little action, the film plods along tediously, indifferently. We
get to watch Griet wash clothes, make dinner, scrub floors, and eventually pose for
Vermeer. And that's about as exciting as it gets. In "Lost in Translation," the
relationship is left open ended, with the possibility for future contact. But here, the
relationship is dead in the water, leaving one to wonder what the difference is between
depicting "Girl with a Pearl Earring" versus any other painting by Vermeer. It could have
just as easily been "Girl reading a letter at an open window."
All of that said, it's hard not to be swept away by the imagery. Visually, the film is a
work of art. Eduardo Serra along with a team of production designers has captured a
feeling of vibrant simplicity. With subtle tones and an artistic sense for space and
symmetry, Serra makes it difficult to turn your eyes away from the screen. In particular,
the recreation of Vermeer's works like "Young Woman With a Water Pitcher" are delicately
reproduced as still lifes in Vermeer's studio and then translated onto canvas.
With memorable performances in "Ghost World" and even as a teenager in "The Horse
Whisperer," Scarlett Johansson is rapidly becoming a Hollywood starlet. But here,
something seems amiss. Eerily similar to the girl in Vermeer's painting, Johansson
portrays Griet with a calm certainty, a self-assuredness that almost defies the world in
which she resides. It's as if she's too intellectual, too righteous to be a maid. But
we'll never really know for sure because Webber does not allow her to express herself.
Instead, her character is muffled and masked in etiquette when dealing with the skulking,
emotionless Vermeer. Even the diabolical Van Ruijven, played energetically by Tom
Wilkinson, cannot stir much of a reaction from her. Only once, after Cornelia dirties her
laundry, do we realize there may be something deeper - that she is, in fact, capable of
"Girl with a Pearl Earring" is a fascinating concept that loses its luster on screen.
Although the script stays true to the times, where romanticism is more or less squelched,
it doesn't make for an entertaining, compelling film. And it doesn't matter how wondrous
the camera work or production design is when the characters and their actions are stifled
in a story of insignificance. Symbolically, the pearl earrings may well represent the
life that Griet cannot possibly attain, but physically, they represent an accessory to an
otherwise, mundane picture.