Little is known about 17th century Dutch master painter, Johannes Vermeer. Though his body of work remains revered to this day, there is scant information about his life, inspiration and passions, so don’t expect a biopic here. Girl With a Pearl Earring is based upon a novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier and focuses on what the author believed to be the inspiration for perhaps Vermeer’s most famous painting.
Girl With A Pearl Earring is one of those Mona Lisa-like paintings that leaves viewers perplexed about exactly what the model is trying to express. She is looking back over her left shoulder, wearing a simple blue headband and a modest smock, yet she sports a pearl earring in her left ear. Her full, red lips hint at what appears to be a slight smile, but her eyes hide some sort of sadness. It’s as though she was caught walking out of the room, contemplating something worrying, and then was suddenly called out to and has to glance back. The response is like most people’s reaction to an unexpected photograph being taken. The model has remained anonymous, but many have assumed her to be a daughter, a neighbour or a tradeswoman. Girl With A Pearl Earring takes the view that she was a servant girl.
Seventeen-year-old Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is forced to join Vermeer’s (Colin Firth) household when her father is blinded in a kiln accident. The financial demands of his over-bearing mother-in-law and ever-growing family have produced great tension in the house. Vermeer is reliant on a patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), but the painter’s perfectionist tendencies mean he spends far too much time on each piece of work, which pulls at the family’s purse strings.
It is Van Rujivan – a camp, caddish, moustachioed aristocrat, hammishly played by Wilkinson – who takes a fancy to Griet and insists that she becomes Vermeer’s next project: "Ripe as a plum, still unplucked!" he exclaims. By this point, though, Vermeer has already taken a liking to our maid – recognising that she has a natural artist’s appreciation of the world around us – and has been tutoring her, creating all sorts of repressed sexual tension and tenderness.
"It’s obscene," shouts Vermeer’s wife, when she finally catches a glimpse of the completed work. Presumably, this is because polite society at the time frowned upon servants removing their headgear and wearing the mistress’s jewellery. Ironic, really, that Vermeer’s most revered work should be labelled as a piece of smut, produced at the whim of a horny patron.
The period detail of Girl With A Pearl Earring is awe-inspiring. Every shot is beautifully composed, with Vermeer-esque lighting throughout, creating an impression that 17th Holland really was as his work portrayed it. However, perhaps this fastidiousness could have been applied to the characters, who come across as bumbling stereotypes. Aside from Wilkinson’s comedy villain, we have Firth’s Vermeer – sexy, introvert, brow constantly furrowed. Add a wet shirt and Mr Darcy reincarnate will be as successful at raising the passions of female English literature students as his predecessor.
Then there’s the evil mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), who cares nothing for art but instead berates Vermeer’s lack of productivity, and his neurotic, selfish wife. Not to mention the clichéd housekeeper ("she’s eatin’ us out of house and home") and, of course, Griet’s love interest – a brooding, blue-eyed butcher’s boy called Pieter (Cillian Murphy). Perhaps these hackneyed protagonists exist to make Johansson’s, admittedly stunning, performance as the eponymous Griet all the more enticing, but they really are difficult to forgive.
Girl With A Pearl Earring can be interpreted as either beautiful recreation of Vermeer’s world, imbued with a respect for the artist and his work, or a tedious 90-minute art lecture. Perhaps this is a little harsh – the film is not without its highlights (in addition to the stunning visuals) – but so much deference is given to the artist’s genius that at times it seems as though Vermeer himself is the film’s target audience.