Chevalier’s book soars to the screen
You may know that Girl With a Pearl Earring, which opens today at the Apollo, is based on the novel of the same name by celebrated Oberlin alum Tracy Chevalier. While I imagine it is a wonderful novel, I couldn’t care less. The film, set in 17th century Holland and directed by first-timer Peter Webber, is memorable as an original piece of cinema that achieves greatness on cinematic terms.
The film is sparsely plotted: young woman Griet (Scarlett Johansson of Lost In Translation) arrives as a servant in the house of painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Slowly Griet’s quiet intelligence attracts Vermeer’s attention the pair develop an unstated respect for one another. These two people are more alike than they realize.
The drama is subtle and believable - an antidote for stuffy historical melodrama. The villainous Van Ruijven is a particularly satisfying character - a terrible man but a great patron. Johansson, who has shot to stardom on the basis of her performances in this film and Lost In Translation, fits smoothly into her role of someone who has been instructed her entire life not to speak unless spoken to.
As the film progresses, the relationship between Griet and Vermeer is threatened by the worries of Vermeer’s perpetually pregnant wife (Essie Davis), and by a strict caste system that forbids interclass friendship. Griet also draws the unwanted attention of Vermeer’s lecherous patron Van Ruijevn (Tom Wilkinson), a development duly observed by Vermeer’s hawkeyed mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), who knows the lengths to which her household must go to satisfy its patron. The story gradually moves towards the creation of the titular portrait, which remains tantalizingly off-screen.
The film’s greatest strength is its sense of cinematographic composition. Many period pieces lazily throw beautiful costumes and palaces onscreen and hope for the best. Unlike these films, Girl With a Pearl Earring is not just a magnet for technical Oscars. Everything here is dirty - the streets, the clothes, the people, the building, but the dirt is filmed with such genuine style that it puts larger-budgeted historical re-creations to shame. It’s been years since any movie so carefully turned every shot into a beautiful image capable of standing on its own. The film earned cinematographer Eduardo Serra a deserved Academy Award nomination.
Girl With a Pearl Earring achieves something unique: it studies the creation of art by encouraging us to consider each shot as if it were one of Vermeer’s paintings. This stands as a shining rejection of too-shallow-to-dive, Merchant-Ivory-wannabe period bores. This movie might not be for those who find Allen Art Museum about as inspiring as Dascomb’s soup bar. For others, prepare to lose yourself in a beautiful, artful film.