Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)Rated PG-13 for some sexual content.
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Lions Gate Films. All rights reserved.
Easy on the Eyes
The hook of Girl with a Pearl Earring is supposed to be its story, an exercise in historic romantic fiction that fills one of the many gaps in the life of a famous painter. Reportedly, not much is known about 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (played here by Colin Firth) outside of recorded factual data, leaving the inspirations of his work open to a fair amount of conjecture. Thus, room was available for author Tracy Chevalier to create a melodrama to whimsically explain the motivation behind Vermeer's famous enigmatic work, "Girl with a Pearl Earring."
As it turns out, the story is the least interesting element of this gorgeous film. Girl with a Pearl Earring is like a painting come to life. Every shot is masterfully assembled by cinematographer Eduardo Serra and director Peter Webber. The scenes are rich in color, filtered or lit beautifully, with attention to composition. The whole thing looks exquisite.
Watching the movie is like walking through a gallery. The film moves at a slow, leisurely pace, accompanied by memorable string soundtrack. Viewers are allowed to take their time savoring the scenery. The mood of the story is quiet and subtle. The experience is similar to listening to good classical music -- not flashy and showy to capture the short attention spans of today's audience, but confident in unfolding at a pace which allows one to soak in the good qualities.
The centerpiece of the movie is Scarlett Johansson, who plays the subject of the titular painting. Between this and Lost in Translation, Johansson's having a good year, and people will likely want to talk up her performance in this movie. Yet the role doesn't offer her much variety in a traditional acting sense -- she has about 20 scenes in which her character, a maid, is working and gets interrupted by one of the house's masters, at which point she looks up, gets nervous, looks down, looks back up, looks back down, does a quick curtsy, looks back up, etc. However, it does allow her to shine as the visual focus of the movie. One might not have been able to choose a face more elegant than Johansson's -- various lighting harmonizes with her smooth features, and her large eyes and full lips are expressive throughout. What her character lacks in action she makes up for in the skillful use of her countenance, able to communicate inner feelings better than any dialogue. It fits in with the film's notion that hers is a visage worth capturing for Vermeer, as it is Johansson who becomes the subject of most of the movie's own "paintings."
Is it enough to recommend a movie mainly on its looks? I'd say it is -- personally, I was happy enough just using my eyes that I ended up not really caring where the plot was going. But for those who want to pay more attention to that, a rather standard drama about the relational power struggles centered around a scorned potential romance is waiting. We have a jealous wife, a troublemaking kid, a slimy patron, a string-pulling mother-in-law, and the artist who finds an unsuspecting muse in his maid. This is the kind of stuff that could froth up a soap opera, but here it's played more as brooding. It's pretty creative and entertaining enough, but I found it better to be distracted by the scenery.
Now I wish I had some expertise in the art of history's famous painters. I admit I can't make an educated comment about how the fabulous photography of the movie relates to actual works by Vermeer or his peers. All I know is I watched a film of visual sumptuousness, and that it makes an argument for the appreciation of the beauty and mystery that can be captured in a well-composed painting.
©Jeffrey Chen, Dec. 8, 2003