The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer had a thing about painting attractive young women. ‘Woman with a Pearl Earring’ depicts a beautiful milk-white skinned girl who, in contrast to her modest brown dress, wears an exotic blue and lemon turban. Her lips are slightly parted and she intently gazes back toward you, her turning head perfectly balanced by the glowing pearl that hangs from her ear. This painting intrigued writer Tracy Chevalier, who wrote a book about it – the film directed by Peter Webber is adapted from this fiction.
In the opening scene you see Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a modest Dutch lass, cutting vegetables – by the way she slices and arranges them you know she is artistically gifted. Sent to work as a maid for the ever-expanding Vermeer family by her ailing father, she enraptures the painter. Poor Vermeer – he’s tortured by an androgynous mother-in-law, a jealous and vain wife who epitomises bitch, and never-ending money problems. Griet becomes his muse and eventually she models for a painting that rivals Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ in its mystery and fame.
Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is brilliant – the quality of light and colour and the composition of shot (particularly that of the interiors) is perfectly matched with that of Vermeer’s paintings. Many of the pictures on the walls of the house appear in his paintings. Watching this film is like watching a never-ending Vermeer (with a dash of Chaim Soutine when Griet is at the meat market, and men in the street who have just popped out of a Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’). The pace is just right, the camera lingers as if the cinematographer was the painter. For all the film’s sumptuous colour, there is a beautifully understated quality to it, and which also reflects the harsh reality of 17th century Holland.
In contrast to the visual depth of the film, the screenplay verges on banality. Colin Firth would have been better to simmer away under that intense delectably stubbly outside than explain how he paints, and Scarlett to continue to silently watch, than say she can see not simply white but also “yellow, grey and blue” in the clouds. These slight discrepancies aside, Scarlett manages to command the screen through gesture rather than words (thankfully). The attraction between the two is strongly evoked, especially in the scenes in which they grind and mix colours – his hand moves and rests by hers, almost touching, but not quite. The scene when Vermeer ties on her turban for the painting (after she has revealed her beautiful head of hair for the one and only time in the film) creates a similar erotic suspension. Webber took a tremendous risk in making a film with such a slim story – luckily it was one that turned out to be well worth taking.