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

director: Peter Webber

95 minutes (PG-13) 2003
Lion's Gate/Fox NTSC VHS rental
Also available to buy on DVD

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
With great joy I can recommend a new 'art' film in every sense of the word - a real treat that culture vultures out there like myself can relish. An astonishingly accomplished debut feature by UK director Peter Webber (with TV experience), The Girl With A Pearl Earring displays such a high level of creativity and technical craft in the choice of subject matter, in the way it was made, and in the handling of the narrative - that the production truly represents artistry. This cinematic adaptation by Olivia Helreed of a popular, critically acclaimed novel by Tracy Chevalier, uses the same title that belongs to the book and to its inspiration, a famous painting by the revered 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. The plot inventively concocts an explanation of the identity of the intriguing and alluring (historically mysterious and unknown), young woman limned on the canvas in question and explicates how her portrait came to be made.

Photographed in authentic Delft and Belgium locations with appropriate 17th century architecture and ambiance, the story, set in Delft, concerns the eponymous 17-year-old Griet (Scarlett Johansson), daughter of puritanical Protestant working class parents whose economic survival becomes precarious when her tile-making, artisan father (Chris McHallem) suffers disabling injury. Griet thus becomes driven by necessity to seek employment to help support her family, and she lucks onto a job doing maid's work for one of her father's clients, the Catholic haute bourgeoisie household of the Vermeers whose upper class standing also proves tenuous due to Johannes Vermeer's (Colin Firth) output of paintings being sporadic and sparse.

Griet, in her new life, must cope not only with her duties under the relatively benign supervision of chief servant Tanneke (Johanna Scanlan); but with Vermeer's hostile, jealous spouse Catharina (Essie Davis), her feisty mother-in-law Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), and his obnoxious 12-year-old daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann) - the worst of four otherwise bearable additional siblings.

Despite her illiteracy, the intelligent and perceptive Griet soon finds her favourite task to be cleaning Vermeer's studio, work that leads to contact with the master who benevolently reacts to Griet's fascination with his art by instructing her about the properties of light and colour. Griet soon finds herself involved in mixing Vermeer's paints from various substances used to make pigments, her aptitude and enthusiasm so appealing, her appreciation of his creative efforts so endearing that an inevitable sexual tension develops between them, feelings that intensify when she becomes his model. Seemingly insignificant gestures become imbued with intimacy - the fleeting touch of a hand; removing the concealing cap worn by women of the time period freeing long, flowing hair; and the piercing of Griet's earlobe for the gift of the titular earring - all these and more becoming acts fraught with symbolic meaning.

Making matters more interesting, Griet must also deal with the wealthy, bombastic and lecherous Van Riujven (Tom Wilkinson), Vermeer's influential patron whose commissions contribute vital financial support to the painter's family. Van Riujven's expectations of sexual entitlement with a servant Griet has little power to resist, placing her in danger of exploitation. Griet, with difficulty and with the aid of Maria Thins, manoeuvres her way out of compromising situations with the patron but she also proves reluctant to the advances of a potentially desirable suitor, the handsome, affable, smitten, local butcher's son, Pieter (Cillian Murphy) who soon realises his greatest rival for Griet's attentions to be Vermeer and not Van Riujven. Events build to an emotional confrontation precipitated by Catharina, a stormy interaction that leads to permanent changes in the lives of the principal characters involved, an ultimate outcome - inevitable, bittersweet, open-ended and uncertain, like life itself.

Despite some slow-paced moments and some scenes bordering on soap opera-type histrionics, Girl With A Pearl Earring offers essentially superb ensemble acting by all the lead performers with Johansson giving a star turn communicating Griet's smarts, doubts, resourcefulness and most notably her expressions of wonder at her discovery of the power of art. Splendidly detailed, accurate interiors, exteriors, props, costumes, social mannerisms - enhanced by a beautiful, atmospheric, classical-style score from Alexander Despla, all contribute to this film's dazzling high quality. The Girl With A Pearl Earring really stands out, thanks to the exemplary look of Eduardo Serra's remarkable and brilliant cinematography, framing each shot and using lighting and angles to make every scene resemble Vermeer's paintings.

It becomes easy to see why Vermeer's work had that striking, luminous, textural quality when it gets duplicated so perfectly in cinematic form to such a degree from the milieu in which the artist lived. The Girl With A Pearl Earring represents one of those delightful historical period dramas that satisfy by being the next best thing to having a time machine in the way it so meticulously and entertainingly reveals its era's personages and environment. Webber's unusual directorial skill for a first feature, the fine acting and excellent production values make this picture a gem to be treasured that must be seen by all who appreciate artistic achievements in any medium and at every level.
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