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GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Essie Davis, Judy Parfitt
Director: Peter Webber
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Lions Gate
Features: Anatomy of a Scene, trailers, music video
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: May 4, 2004

"How hard is it to paint a pretty girl?"

Film ****

Art enthusiasts worldwide are probably familiar with the famous Dutch painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring."  A portrait of an anonymous girl, it is a work of simple beauty and sensual allure, emphasizing the artist's great command of composition.  The girl is adorned in an exotic costume, with a blue-yellow turban and a solitary tear-drop pearl earring.  Her wayward glance, over the shoulder, with partially opened lips, provokes an expression no less enigmatic than that found in the "Mona Lisa."

"Girl with a Pearl Earring," sometimes known as "Girl with a Turban" or simply "Young Girl," was the masterwork of Flemish Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-75).  A slow and meticulous artist, Vermeer painted only during a brief span of twenty years and rarely ventured beyond his home of Delft, Holland.  A perfectionist, Vermeer created barely over thirty canvases, mostly of contemporary life scenes.  Despite his low production, Vermeer is recognized today as one of the great Dutch masters of the seventeenth-century, second perhaps only to Rembrandt.

In over three centuries since its creation, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" continues to maintain an aura of intrigue about it.  Who is the painting's subject?  Is she one of Vermeer's own daughters, Maria?  Or, is she the daughter of one of Vermeer's patrons or perhaps another unidentified girl?  Opinions are further divided upon whether the painting represents a true bust length portrait or is in actually a tronie (an archaic painting of facial features meant to serve as a study of expression, physiognomy, or composition).

Even the girl's attire is mysterious.  Although Danish paintings of the day embraced a passion for the exotic as a fashion accessory, the girl's unusual turban has no comparable antecedent in the context of European painting.  The central gleam of the pearl earring draws our attention further inward.  For Vermeer, who commonly used pearl earrings as adornments in his paintings, the pearl represented a symbol of purity but also of sensuality, too.  This ambiguity is what provides such allure to the painting.

Among the Vermeer paintings, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is also unusual in its broad strokes.  It establishes form through vague contours and contrasting areas of light and dark rather than by well-demarcated outlines.  The painting may even have been created with the assistance of a camera obscura, an early precursor of the modern camera.  The painting's stylization, with its soft edges and mild abstraction, date it perhaps to around the mid-1660's, in the central part of Vermeer's career.

Vermeer's mastery is readily seen in the painting's composition.  Geometric axes can be traced in the painting's form - a vertical axis through the girl's torso and earring, and two dichotomously opposing diagonal lines, one created of the girl's turned head and shoulders, the other traceable through the casual fall of her flowing turban.  These lines invest subtle energy into the girl's pose, which has an inherently-tense counterposition of a body and head moving in opposite directions, with the girl's direct gaze peering into the eyes of the spectator.  Vermeer's use of the negative space in the painting provides an intensely black backdrop that further focuses our attention solely upon the girl.  It is no wonder, then, that this compelling portrait is often considered the Mona Lisa of the North.

Today, this 19" x 16" portrait is housed in the Royal Painting Cabinet Mauritshuis in The Hague, home to some of the most famous Dutch masterpieces of the seventeenth century.  The portrait's mysteries may never be truly elucidated, but those very mysteries comprise the fabric of the portrait's eternally-compelling attraction to its viewers.

Recently, the novel "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier presented an imagined account of the painting's conception.  The novel told the story of a servant girl who, for a brief time, lived within the Vermeer household and, capturing the artist's imagination, would eventually become the subject of his famous painting.  While there is no basis in the historical evidence to back the novel's fictional supposition, the story nevertheless provides a romantic notion for the passion and emotion contained within the painting.

Peter Webber's film, Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), is an adaptation of the Chevalier novel.  It is set in Delft, Holland, circa 1665, home to the Flemish painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth).  Into his household one day is arrived the new servant, a young girl by the name of Griet (Scarlett Johansson).  She is the seventeen-year-old daughter of an impoverished artist who has taken ill and has thus been compelled into servitude to help support her family.

Griet's new home is initially not a particularly happy one for her.  The mistress of the home, Catharina (Essie Davis), is a cold and distant woman, and her children regard Griet with a palpable air of disdain.  Vermeer himself is mostly a quiet and ghostly presence, hiding away for hours on end in his studio.  Griet's working chores are time-consuming and laborious, and her new quarters in the cellar are small and cramped.  There is, however, one saving grace in her new home - every day, she is to enter the studio of the painter Vermeer and to clean it while he rests.

In Vermeer's studio, Griet finds her greatest contentment.  Being the daughter of an artist, she can appreciate the intricacies and attention to the smallest detail and composition that are required to paint as a master.  In one instance, she even hesitates to clean the studio windows for fear that in doing so, she may alter the delicate patterns of the studio's lighting.  In this regard, she is different from everyone else in the household, even Vermeer's wife or Machiavellian mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), who is more concerned with the financial prospects of Vermeer's paintings than with their artistic merits.

Vermeer himself gradually comes to recognize in young Griet a kindred spirit.  Observing her unawares one day in his studio, Vermeer is captivated not only by her artist's eye but also by her tranquil, plaintive nature.  Girl with a Pearl Earring, then, is a tale of the chaste relationship that blossoms between the painter Vermeer and young Griet.  It is a relation that arises initially between master and servant but later transforms into one of teacher and apprentice.  Vermeer reveals secrets of his technique to his young pupil, from his underpaintings to his use of the camera obscura.  He enlists Griet's help in the meticulous preparations of his paints.  Vermeer's appreciation and admiration of Griet is ultimately sublimated into his inspired portrait of the servant girl.

As Griet, the film's central character, Scarlett Johansson is a revelation.  Her role is one of few words, and she must communicate her emotions or inner thoughts mostly through gestures or facial expressions.  It would be an incredibly difficult challenge for any actress, but Johansson delivers such a remarkable and expressive performance that she displays a level of maturity far beyond her young years.  Hers is truly an Oscar-caliber performance, and while the Academy did not choose to honor her (years back, it had also ignored her stellar performance in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer), there will come a day when Scarlett Johansson is deservedly recognized as the best actress of her generation.

Colin Firth, well known for his romantic roles in such films as Pride and Prejudice or Bridget Jones's Diary, brings a smothering, brooding intensity to an otherwise underwritten role as the painter Vermeer.  We sense in him a man completely devoted upon his artistry and paintings; there is a tangible but understated delight in Firth's Vermeer when he realizes that in Griet, he has discovered someone with whom he may truly share his passion for his craft.

Essie Davis has the pitiless role as Vermeer's wife, Catharina.  The film portrays her as distant with only a superficial understanding of Vermeer's artistry.  She is discernibly jealous of young Griet, partially because of her husband's kindly attentions towards her, but perhaps more for the young servant girl's inherent understanding of Vermeer's work, something which Catharina sadly lacks.

In truth, there is little in the historical evidence to suggest that anyone of Griet's nature ever worked in the Vermeer household.  Furthermore, by all accounts Johannes and Catharina were a happily married couple, and their union bore fruit to fifteen children.  Despite the film's contention that Catharina was ill-versed in the craft of painting, it is altogether likely that she was the subject for several of Vermeer's paintings.

We may never know the true identity of the Girl with the Pearl Earring.  It is one mystery that alludes art historians, one further enigma behind the Girl's allure.  Whatever passion or yearning was infused into the painting's creation is now faded in the passage of time.  The film Girl with a Pearl Earring concludes with a long close-up of the actual painting, a final glance at Vermeer's most recognized work.  The Girl is a symbol of purity and concurrently of sensuality.  Maiden, mother, daughter, or servant girl, she looks directly at us, her expression, like the Mona Lisa smile, beckoning us or perhaps mocking us furthermore.

BONUS TRIVIA: Many Vermeer paintings appear in this film besides its namesake.  "The Girl with a Wine Glass" appears in the parlor of van Ruijven, one of Vermeer's patrons.  Among the other included works are "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher," which Griet observes Vermeer painting, and "Woman with a Pearl Necklace," which serves as a portrait of van Ruijven's wife.  There is an allusion to "The Concert" in the way that Vermeer's studio is arranged for certain scenes.

Video ***

Girl with a Pearl Earring is presented in a color, anamorphic widescreen format.  The cinematography is quite painterly, using filters to give some scenes a luminous golden glow and other scenes a bluish, subdued tint.  The transfer carefully re-captures the Oscar-nominated cinematography (by Eduardo Serra) quite well, although it is mildly grainy, with dark scenes that occasionally swallow up image details.  There is perhaps a tad bit more debris on the print than should be present for an essentially new film, but otherwise the film looks quite breath-taking, almost like a painting itself.

As a side note, this lush film was also rightfully nominated for art direction and costume design.

Audio *** 1/2

Girl with a Pearl Earring offers an 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack which, although not aggressive, does create a dynamic aural environment when need be.  Furthermore, Alexandre Desplat's expressive and moving score, nominated for a Golden Globe, glides gracefully among all the speakers, creating an immersive, ethereal audio experience.  The film sounds as wonderful as it looks!

Features **

There are relatively few extra features on this disc.  First, click on the Lions Gate logo to bring up trailers for Girl with a Pearl Earring and its soundtrack as well as a trailer for Shattered Glass.

Moving along, there is, oddly enough, a dreary and forgettable rock music video.  Girl with a Pearl Earring is not exactly the sort of film that lends itself to a rock soundtrack.  Fortunately, the song never appears anywhere in the actual film (disaster averted)!  How bad is this song?  Its artist is never even identified, that's how bad it is.  The video is mostly unbearable to watch except for the saving grace of Scarlett Johansson, who has fun with the pouting pop starlet act in a guest spot.

The most significant offering is a 24-minute Sundance Channel feature, Anatomy of a Scene, which focuses upon the dinner scene unveiling of Vermeer's latest portrait.  This is one of the film's bigger moments, commencing with a montage that follows the preparations for the party, the gathering of the guests, and finally the meal itself.  The filmmakers discuss the costumes and set designs used, as well as the attention given to lighting and color scheme to present an authentic but picturesque recreation of a seventeenth-century dinner party.

Summary:

Scarlett Johansson gives a truly inspired performance in Girl with a Pearl Earring, although its true stars may well be the absolutely gorgeous cinematography, art direction, and costume design.  Watching this film is like watching a Vermeer painting come to life.  It is easily one of the most beautiful offerings of 2003 and definitely a top recommendation!