BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
Adapted from the novel by Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a mesmerizing film whose vintage scenery transports us to 17th century Delft, the Dutch village of real-life painter Johannes Vermeer. While the story is fiction, the title refers to Vermeer’s familiar portrait of an unidentified girl in a blue and gold headscarf and pearl earrings who turns her head backward toward the artist with a haunting gaze.
To support her family when her tile-painter father goes blind, Griet (Scarlett Johansson) becomes a maid in the home of Vermeer (Colin Firth). Early on we observe her arranging vegetables with great artistry. Vermeer himself discovers her sensitivity and Griet becomes his muse. She cleans his studio, mixes his paints, and strikes a helpful pose. Griet cleans the windows to improve the light and removes a chair from his field of composition because it makes the subject in his painting look “trapped.” In short, they experience an artistic connection that crosses the sacred boundaries of class structure and wreaks havoc on the household, especially when Griet becomes the subject of his painting.
What works in this film is its five-star ambience that earned a 2003 nomination for best cinematography. The music, the scenery, the costumes, and the unhurried old-world pace create a consuming, must-see experience.
What doesn’t work are 1) the belabored facial poses of Miss Johansson, who looks so dreadfully unattractive in her white peasant bonnet, and 2) a less than convincing story that focuses too much on the maid and too little on Vermeer—a far more fascinating subject. And contrary to the film, history indicates a fine relationship between Vermeer and his wife, with whom he produced 11 offspring. But the film is well worth the rental, offering substantial entertainment and a vivid and poetic taste of the past.