**/**** Image B- Sound A Extras B-
starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt
screenplay by Olivia Hetreed, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier
directed by Peter Webber
by Bill Chambers It's a tad perverse to shoot a film about the world of Johannes Vermeer in 'scope, considering the artist's own cramped reflection of that world on portable canvasses. A shut-in, if we interpret his life through his surviving pictures, Vermeer didn't just paint in a lambent room on the upper level of his mother-in-law's house in Delft, he painted the room itself--the begrimed walls, the half-stained furniture, the Gingerbread-house windows that caught his human subjects (often, it appears, members of the servant class) in a tractor beam of light.
Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earring, based on a best-selling piece of speculative fiction by Tracy Chevalier, feels like it's committing an act of infidelity with its widescreen dimensions: Steven Spielberg famously forewent Panavision for Jurassic Park "because dinosaurs are tall"; Vermeer's work is invariably petite and vertical, but Webber seems less concerned with placing us inside a context than with anamorphically distinguishing the film from an episode of "Masterpiece Theatre"--and underscoring his transition to features after years of directing television. (He may have come to this material by way of his TV movie about Franz Schubert.) All is not lost, since DP Eduardo Serra (Jude, Unbreakable) exhibits a savant-like gift for mimicking the Dutch Masters (and not in the smoke-enhanced, Simpson-Bruckheimer vein), but ultimately, it's the limited number of sets that are left to infer the modesty of Vermeer's tableaux.
With skin the colour and texture of baby powder and the kind of bee-stung lips that have Biographical Dictionary of Film author David Thomson pleasuring himself in French (he unfortunately squandered the phrase "carnal embouchure" on Angelina Jolie), Scarlett Johansson would be cannily cast as the muse in any film, but her propensity to mug for the reaction shot--she has a rotating arsenal of squints and downward glances and contemplative pouts--gives her an actressy presence that's too familiar (i.e., insufficiently alien, with the exception of Johansson's physical perfection) for a milieu rarely, if ever, specifically depicted on celluloid.
|Vermeer original/Johansson Memorex|
In the B-plot, Johansson's chambermaid Griet catches the fancy of a butcher (Cillian Murphy) whose WB-ready look screams Trent Ford of the D'Urbervilles: there's a marketing cynicism fuelling his anachronistic prettiness that made me laugh every time he came on screen. And, of course, everyone has been encouraged to adopt a Merchant Ivory accent; the bid for period-piece street cred takes precedence over a more truthful evocation of The Netherlands circa 1665. What's more, Johansson bears little resemblance to the "girl with a pearl earring," except perhaps around the eyes, and Webber's solution is to throw the Vermeer out of focus, withholding its actual unveiling for the closing credits the way biopics show the subject in real life at the end. Indeed, Griet would come off as slow-witted if we were to see the painting in conjunction with her observation, "Looks just like me," but the evasion is spectacularly obvious.
Still, Girl with a Pearl Earring works best when it's confined to the titular work. It would be a waste of Chevalier's potboiler, I guess, but Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse provided a template for this sort of thing by proving there is drama in the act of creation and the dance between artist and model/muse. Olivia Hetreed's screenplay adaptation busies itself to build fictional scaffolding for a story that is both self-sufficient and self-contained. When Johansson lets out a startlingly erotic gasp as Vermeer (Colin Firth, typecast as a cold fish with a thawing heart) pierces her ear in preparation of the titular portrait (the real-life model for which remains unidentified), the moment is such a potent metaphor for sexual penetration that you're surprised the filmmakers are otherwise so determinedly literal-minded. The problem with Girl with a Pearl Earring is that it tries too hard to satisfy the arthouse mainstream and not hard enough to honour its tenuous connection to art. Originally published: December 12, 2003.
I replaced my Academy screener of Girl with a Pearl Earring with a retail copy in the vain hope that the latter would contain a better transfer. Alas. The consumer version's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is identically problematic: blacks lean towards a sickly green, grain is so coarse as to suggest something closer to video noise, and the source print is less than pristine. The image seems outmatched by the loud, fantastically crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 audio from a technical standpoint, although the film's soundmix is certainly not as ambitious as its cinematography. And while the decided lack of shadow detail may also disappoint viewers, that I credited to an attempt to approximate the velvety craquelure of Baroque artwork.
A meagre helping of supplementary material includes the Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene" special on Girl with a Pearl Earring, which deconstructs the 'viewing feast' set-piece from adaptation (screenwriter Hetreed consolidated two sequences from the novel) to editing (in the quest to streamline a 200-minute rough cut, editor Kate Evans arguably sold the scene short). The blood-red lips Johansson sports in her interview transform her every innocent observation ("The montage is the raw anatomy of the maid's lifestyle") into a bizarre come-on, while producer Andy Peterson surely wound up siccing the union on director Webber by revealing that Joanna Scanlan, as servant Tanneke, was asked to dress the kitchen set in character before shooting commenced. Truman's ridiculous tie-in video--we're talking Falco flashback--for "Girl With a Pearl" (in which some fashionably broody rock star with a crush on a painting doesn't notice that a blonde Johansson has been beamed into his piano parlour) plus logo-concealed trailers for Girl with a Pearl Earring, its soundtrack CD, and Shattered Glass round out the disc.
95 minutes; PG-13; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1; CC; English, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Lions Gate