Girl With a Pearl Earring

Review by © Jane Freebury

If a picture is worth a thousand words it can also prompt a good story, something shown recently by the success of a novel that invents the circumstances behind an exquisite painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It’s the Girl With a Pearl Earring who looks over her shoulder at us from across the centuries, like a close-up before cinema invented them, captured in an unguarded moment yet returning the onlooker’s gaze.

The recent Tracy Chevalier novel capitalized on the fact that little is known about Vermeer, though it’s recorded he had a large family like J.S.Bach, but he worked far more slowly than that prolific composer to support them. In the film eleven urchins crowd the Vermeer house, with yet more on the way. No wonder Colin Firth’s Vermeer looks frazzled when he’s not in his studio.

But his artist remains a somewhat shadowy figure throughout, a presence in silhouette in doorways or collapsed moodily into a chair, who is surrounded by women, his numerous daughters, his wife and mother-in-law, and the maids. As the new maid Griet, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) is a picture of rosy promise, hovering on the edge of womanhood.

Though she is bonneted, keeps her head bowed and is never included in any conversation, Griet does not escape the notice of Vermeer’s lusty patron, Van Ruijven, (a bewhiskered Tom Wilkinson) either, and he commissions the artist to paint her, so that he can at least take her home and possess her image for his gratification.

It’s a starched and cloistered world the Vermeer women inhabit but there’s a robust physicality to acknowledge too, in the way, for instance, we hover over a painting of a flushed young woman drinking wine (yes!) and another cleaning window panes. I feel that Vermeer reflected this in his paintings

Director Peter Webber hails from television, but he and his team have created an enthralling and beautiful film. It could be said that nothing much happens, but the movie’s recreation of life in 17th-century town of Delft is wonderfully alive. And there’s such a vivid sense of intimacy in the piercing of Griet’s earlobe, the exposed nape of her neck, that the Girl With a Pearl Earring is almost intoxicating.

In a capsule: Exquisite film based on a book based on a painting by Vermeer, with Scarlett Johansson as the object of desire.

4 stars

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