Girl With The Pearl Earring

January, 2004, Drama

Girl With A Pearl Earring

Veteran T.V. director Peter Webber graduates to the big screen with this carefully observed film based on Tracy Chevalier's successful novel about Vermeer, the famous 18th century Dutch painter and the creation of his most important, if enigmatic painting. While the movie has the cautious dramatic impact of a piece made for Masterpiece Theater, its visual impact more than compensates for it; Pearl is simply gorgeous to look at and like last year's Master & Commander, it recreates the environment in which it's set so thoroughly the audience feels enveloped in a perfectly detailed time-warp.

Britain's Colin Firth, noted for his understated screen performances, plays Vermeer, who works in the upper floors of the house he shares with his wife, young children, domineering mother-in-law and two overworked servants. Totally obsessed with his own work and supported precariously by Van Reijven, his patron, Vermeer struggles with paint and lighting at an agonizingly slow pace to create his masterpieces. When the family hires Griet, a new servant girl, Vermeer sees her as the potential model for what becomes his crowing achievement. Battling the resentment of Vermeer's wife, the suspicions of his mother-in-law and the pawing advances of Van Reijven, Griet assists the painter in the work of his studio and agrees, quite reluctantly and with decidedly mixed motives, to pose for him.

How much of this is really true? No one really knows who the subject of this iconic portrait really was, and Chevalier, (working with co-screenwriter Olivia Hetreed) teases out the possibilities raised in her novel in a tone so muted that, were it not for the film's brilliant sets and richly detailed cinematography, "Pearl" would be slow going indeed. Yet here, it isn't the devil who's in the details, but the angels of nuance-the soft colors of ladies dresses, the carefully documented minutia of household cleaning and cooking, the meticulously observed marketplace where Griet shops for the family's provisions; even the comprehensive examination of the most mundane aspects of painting itself--especially the care given to producing precisely the right color-tone for use on the canvas.

Tom Wilkinson, who contributes greatly to every film he's in, presents the most dominant character here, even if it's a rather tangential one; Firth's Vermeer lets his work speak for him, and Scarlett Johanson's Griet is the model of domestic-servant rectitude. In the end, Pearl is simply all about the painting and in this case, that's quite enough.

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