Film reviews and more since 2009

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) review

Dir. Peter Webber

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

Peter Webber’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is something of a rarity as far as historical dramas are concerned. It’s not preceded by a title card claiming to be “based on true events.” It doesn’t provide us with two or three slides of backstory regarding its titular oil painting by Johannes Vermeer from 1665. In fact, for how famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is, there’s not a great deal known about it nor Vermeer, whose works were few despite his massive impact on the Dutch Golden Age of art.

What Webber, in his directorial debut, and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed try and do might reasonably be considered more difficult than dramatizing the actual story of the creation of Vermeer’s painting. Using Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same, they attempt to create a plausible backstory behind “Girl with a Pearl Earring;” thus, the film is mostly conjecture. It carries a gentle thoughtfulness, and over the course of 100-minutes, there are no dramatic crescendos or moments of heightened theatricality. It’s all very tactile, sometimes perilously close to being sterile, as mature as its approach might be.

Webber and Hetreed’s telling of the painting’s origins starts with a teenager named Griet (Scarlett Johansson), who is forced into a life of servitude in order to provide for herself and family following her father’s sudden blindness. She’s sent from the Dutch Republic to Delft in South Holland to work as a maid. She gets work in the Vermeer household, in theory led by Johannes (Colin Firth), but he is prone to mood swings and mostly spends his days walled-in his studio. His wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), is pregnant repeatedly while it’s her mother, Maria (Judy Parfitt), who actually runs the household with all the warmth of a drill sergeant.

Griet finds herself on the outs with much of the family, mainly due to her youth and Vermeer’s increasingly evident fixation on her. Outside of Vermeer, the only “fans” Griet has is a harmless local butcher (Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer) who fancies her, and Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), the artist’s wealthy patron, who eventually wants the young woman as his own maid (and presumably other duties as assigned). As a compromise, Vermeer agrees to commission a painting of her, a move that leads to domestic conflicts, sexual tension, and eventually, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

Renowned cinematographer Eduardo Serra presents Girl with a Pearl Earring with illuminating visuals that are softer and more textured than some of the drab period pieces of the same ilk. The eye is drawn to them thanks to Webber’s brave move to favor lengthy stretches of silence. These silences often don’t come when the camera is lingering solely on Griet or Vermeer, but when the two are together. Vermeer instructs Griet on how to make paint. Later, the two are quietly mixing yellows and grays together in his studio, sitting in the company of one another, pensively concentrating, silently collaborating. There’s something touching about this scene I can’t quite articulate. You just have to see it.

Girl with a Pearl Earring‘s pervasive quietness and rather glacial pace does sometimes render it as feeling airy and without much to hold your attention. You have to be in the mood for a film like this, and depending on yours the day you watch it, you might be riveted or bored. Even as someone who craved to watch something a bit out of my own broad and ever-expanding wheelhouse, I found my mind drifting more than I would’ve liked. While Webber’s camera lingers on Griet for a great deal of the film, little effort is made to illustrate her heightened sense of sexual awareness or changing worldview whilst in the company of Vermeer. There’s at times a disconnect between the story and the audience that I wish the film bridged better — its humble ambition aside.

NOTE: As of this writing, Girl with a Pearl Earring is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan, and Alakina Mann. Directed by: Peter Webber.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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