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The Girl With A Pearl Earring
cast: Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, and Cillian Murphy

director: Peter Webber

95 minutes (12) 2003
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Pathé DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
The highly acclaimed, award-winning The Girl With The Pearl Earring is cinema screen visual magic, a rare occasion in film, where the viewer feels it possible to step through the screen and into a long gone age, a portal through time, so intrinsically reproduced, imagined and vivid is everything inside the frame. Lit so naturally is old Holland by cinematographer Eduardo Serra that there is no sensing of the studio walls surrounding this Vermeer courtyard. The past, we find, is too frequently scrubbed clean, like the stoop under Griet's hands, and The Girl With The Pearl Earring is no less dishonest than Lock Up Your Daughters or Oliver! in its portrayal of the smut, grime and gristle, and they were broad farce and dance musical, to boot. The leads in The Girl With The Pearl Earring have healthy locks and perfect teeth while coughs and splutters are prohibited in front of the camera unless clearly afflicted and worthy of plot pointing. Rude interruptions there are, but the grotesquery is kept at bay and sombre romanticism is the line held. Not that this is a downside.
   It is right that The Girl With The Pearl Earring should be so painterly. It is infused with colour, chiaroscuro nights and detailed days of life en direct. The illusion is never broken, a lush, emotional crush, taken from Tracy Chevalier's novel, a hypothesised hint of the romantic between the artiste Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) and a servant, Griet (Scarlett Johansson). Her fate, the self-sacrifice to serfdom, to unquestioned, hard work in this house, is particularly cruel because she is a creative girl. During the opening title sequence she artistically cuts and arranges the vegetables, she is obsessed with the perfection of presentation. Becoming engaged in the Vermeer household is clearly asking for bother with it only a matter of time before she is discovered in the studio, snared by her own fascinations. Vermeer too becomes fixated, on her veneer of calm, and the little of the girl not hidden by her dressing, the pellucid skin, bright eyes and full lips.
   Tom Wilkinson is Van Ruijven, the wealthy businessman, on whom the Vermeer family depend for his commissioning spirit, a lascivious bastard who forces himself on women when not slight kin with the most horrible insults. He takes great delight in noticing that a portrait of his wife has been coated in Indian Yellow. "Distilled through the urine of sacred cows fed only on mango leaves. You've glazed my wife in dried piss." Not only is the wife belittled but Van Ruijven's daughter's face also betrays the commonality of his cruelties and perhaps more. This is perhaps director Peter Webber's greatest gift, a ruling, as in every great painting, that inside the frame every face should tell its story, and no shot gets by without such attention. Van Ruijven is a man who has clearly gotten away with too much and has convinced himself of his invulnerability, godless with no one to answer to. During the grand dinner given to him by the Vermeers, he takes quiet satisfaction in informing them that he has commissioned a work from another young artist, and casually insults his host reducing his great talent to, "So what have you decided to daub next?" Griet is the innocent, trying to move through the household like a ghost, completing her work, stoically anticipating even minor threats, complaining not, and keeping her job for the sake of her family for whom now she is the sole supporter. But Vermeer must find his subject matter somewhere and here she is, an idea seconded by Van Ruijven. Vermeer's wife, Catharina (Essie Davies), has little say, though, and what with the pared down lifestyle, chores on the elbows of others and entertainments limited, she has far too much standing around time and for jealousy there are many easy inroads. Catharina supports her daughter when she accuses Grieta of a theft, and the truth is quickly wrought up by Vermeer. Otherwise, Catherina barely acknowledges the girl, by either her work or as a human being.
   This is the best-looking Catherine Cookson you are ever likely to see. The small screen diminishes the effect a little, the resolution unaltered, but it really should be set against the dark of a movie theatre for full worthiness to the cinematographer, Eduardo Serra. The music of Alexander Desplat follows equally lush patterns, swooping up and around, casting its own spell. The cast is marvellous, particularly Essie Davies, whose jittery, paranoid and retaliatory persona have you both wary of and sympathetic to her. An ultimately benign and trapped woman, she may possess more than most but it is still a life of compromise. She shares the house with her husband while he must be undisturbed in his own time with his models. Her satisfactions are forced and her powers are limited; she is pitiable. Cillian Murphy is like a number of odd and mesmerising young actors today (suggesting Jake Gyllenhall and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as prime examples) who seem to be condemned to leading roles in independent gems that won't get the deserved distribution or notice, if not that, minor roles in the big films. Judy Parfitt is a fright as the beldame, Maria Thins, the mother in law, a gorgon-like figure with a stony hateful stare, another wonderful supporting performance. I have great difficulty meriting Tom Wilkinson for being nothing more than being what might be (recognise the 'get-out clause' in those last three words, I urge you) Tom Wilkinson as I have yet to see him play anything other than mean, miserable and the bastard.
   There are commentaries by the director and producer, and given the magical look of the film one's expectations are that the helmsman be some eccentric, deeply philosophical young genius, whose every word is inspiration. Peter Webber, however, is an ordinary, likeable Joe. The intolerably modest fellow congratulates everyone but himself for the success of the film. There is also a commentary by Tracy Chevalier and the scriptwriter, Olivia Hetreed.
   Outtakes are included in the extras, including three scenes depicting a visit by the plague, though none of the scenes are exceptional and were quite rightly excused from the final cut. In the commentary Webber tells how the film had been taken drastically down from a three-hour and 20-minute rough-cut, a lot of the painfully discarded footage having involved Griet's family, and removed from the beginning of the film to hasten the pace of the movie. Considering the commitment to detail in every shot one would dearly have liked to see that material salvaged in the disc extras. A making-of documentary is lightly informative but clumsy, hasty and short, and the digital photography of its 13 minutes, oddly, badly reflects on the main feature. We never find out the real secrets of the film, by that I mean the facts behind the wondrous cinematography. A cinematographer's commentary is sorely missed. The best of the supporting material comes from the Sundance Channel, Anatomy Of A Scene, taking the Van Ruiyven dinner episode in a relative dissection. It is a more revealing documentary though no more than half an hour long. We get only a tantalising look at Serra on set: "You can work with torches, not with candles."
   On second viewing the film is still slow but not without steady fascination, a meditation even, of gradually unfurling wonder. The story may be small but the world it occupies is large and has a realism of its own.

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