“Girl With A Pearl Earring” is an intelligent, visually ravishing adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel about the Dutch master Vermeer and the model for one of his most famous paintings. With concision and well-chosen detail, Peter Webber’s exceedingly accomplished first feature beautifully evokes the world the artist inhabited 340 years ago while deftly and discreetly delineating the personal intrigue within his teeming household. With its literary pedigree, artsy period backdrop, refined Euro air and wondrous central performance by emerging star Scarlett Johansson, who is receiving concurrent raves for her work in “Lost in Translation,” pic has all the ingredients to become an international specialized circuit hit.
Little is known about Johannes Vermeer, who lived his entire life (1632-75) in the city of Delft, and certainly nothing of the young woman who modeled for the celebrated portrait he created in about 1665. This gave U.S.-born, British-based novelist Chevalier considerable latitude in fashioning her fictional story of a teenager whose destitute Calvinist parents place her as a maid in the home of the Catholic Vermeer, a meticulous, slow-working artist who also works as an art dealer and whose home overflows with innumerable children, an overwrought wife and a queen bee-like mother-in-law.
Even before Griet (Johansson) arrives to take up her duties, one is struck by the unusual nature of the girl. Porcelain-skinned, with largish nose and lips and wide-set eyes, she seems keenly observant and self-possessed, with an intelligence and integrity that trump her illiteracy and low station. The prevailing hallmark of Johansson’s superb performance, which could be considered worthy of great silent film acting, is that her Griet is always holding something in reserve, an innate intelligence and sense of mystery that eventually intrigue Vermeer and severely threaten the latter’s wife.
Courtesy of Ben van Os’ vibrant production design, which is intersected by canals and is populated as much with livestock as it is with humanity, the thriving mercantilist Holland of the time jumps to life as Griet arrives for work. Under the thumb of fleshy housekeeper Tanneke (Joanna Scanlan) and watched with close suspicion by Vermeer’s neurotic wife Catharina (Essie Davis) and the latter’s stern mother Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), Griet develops a fascination with the one room in the cramped house that is off-limits to the family in general, Vermeer’s spare, light-drenched studio.
While fulfilling active public and family roles, Vermeer (Colin Firth) puts his art first, often seeming remote and insisting upon privacy to work at his own deliberate pace despite domestic demands and pressure from his wealthy patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). Soon, however, he notices a nascent sensitivity in Griet to such matters as light, paint materials and composition, which earns her access to the privileged studio; before long, the artist shows her his new acquisition, a camera obscura, which he admits helps him with his work, and invites her to help him grind and mix his paints.
In such a tight household, Griet’s activities do not go unnoticed, and her position there is soon tenuous. The object of mean pranks by one of the painter’s daughters, Griet is politely courted by the nearby butcher’s son (the impossibly handsome Cillian Murphy, who looks like he just stepped out of a Zeffirelli film), just as she is lusted after by the boorish Van Ruijven, who makes a secret deal with Vermeer that looks to bode ill for Griet.
Amidst all these swirling emotions and intrigues, a highly delicate central drama emerges: While producing a group picture for Van Ruijven, Vermeer embarks upon the secret, simultaneous project, a portrait of Griet. Posing for him in a manner that almost seems illicit, the film builds to sensual highlights that consist of a resistant Griet finally consenting to removing her white cap to reveal her resplendent hair, and Vermeer piercing her ear so she can wear the earring he insists is necessary to complete the painting.
When Catharina discovers that the servant girl has been wearing her earrings and demands to see the picture, she hysterically calls it obscene and tries to rip it to shreds. Griet’s fate hangs in the balance, but her capacity for survival proves resilient in a mixed-mood conclusion that is in proportion to the careful balance achieved throughout the picture.
Script by Olivia Hetreed jettisons the book’s first-person p.o.v., probably wisely in that the approach preserves Griet’s mysteriousness, but is quite faithful in tone and spirit. A former editor and documaker, Webber maintains an admirably restrained hold on the material while still keeping the action lively and intriguing. Drama tips into too-overt melodrama on a couple of occasions, however, notably in Van Ruijven’s one-dimensional lechery and Catharina’s overweening jealousy.
Arching over everything is the film’s look, which in cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s exceptionally skilled hands is that of a Vermeer painting from beginning to end. The jumbled textures and colors of the home’s family quarters are set off by the austere loveliness of the artist’s soft-hued studio, which was the setting of so many of his works. Hugely evocative, the studied approach of approximating the Vermeer look, with light slanting in from the side, never feels stilted or fussy, and an emotionally climactic zoom in on Griet striking her pose for the picture, earring finally in place, is breathtaking.
While physically and dramatically credible, Firth is reserved as the guarded artist. Davis as his wife conveys the brittleness of a woman living permanently near the breaking point, and Parfitt has her moments as the matriarch who quietly sympathizes with her son-in-law more than with her daughter.
In a film of outstanding craft contributions, noteworthy are Dien van Straalen’s costumes and, particularly, Alexandre Desplat’s supple, beautifully nuanced score.