With Colin Firth nominated for an Oscar tonight, I’m reminded that I’ve been meaning to write something about one of my favourite films of his – Girl With a Pearl Earring, directed by Peter Webber. I’ve actually watched it twice since starting this blog, but failed each time to write a full review, and now my memories have faded slightly again. So this will just be a short posting about a couple of the main points which struck me, and an excuse to post pictures .
For me this is one of the most breathtaking historical dramas to watch, with the colour, lighting, costumes and Eduardo Serra’s cinematography working together to create the atmosphere of the 17th-century Dutch paintings by artists like Vermeer perfectly. I have read and liked Tracy Chevalier’s novel, but this is one where the adaptation appeals to me and sticks in my memory more than the book. I first saw it at the cinema - since then I’ve seen it on TV and the effects still work very well, but it was best on the big screen.
Scarlett Johansson is excellent as the heroine, Griet, forced to go and work in the painter’s household when her family falls on hard times. I thought the scenes of her doing housework and shopping for household provisions, meat, fish, etc, are so beautifully filmed that they make all these tasks seem almost like works of art to put alongside Vermeer’s paintings. This at times means the film skates over the real drudgery involved in all these domestic tasks – but it balances this out by showing how Griet’s whole life is taken up by her work and how difficult it is to find any time for herself at all. She is drawn by Vermeer’s art and yearns to learn its mysteries, but all she can attain is to learn to mix his paints – and even that is something which causes jealousies and turmoil within a household built on hierarchy.
Although Vermeer and Griet are in the same house, there is an unbridgeable gap between them. Both actors do a great deal with their eyes, expressing how each of them longs not only for each other (although sexual tension is there, a feeling that in another world and at another time they could have been together) but also for what they believe the other one has. Griet can only dream of having the freedom to work as an artist, while, ironically, Vermeer feels hemmed in by all the edifice of domesticity he has to support with his paintings, and sees her as more untrammeled. Firth is always great at saying more with his expression than he can in words, and he certainly does that as Vermeer, while Johansson also expresses the silent battles Griet is waging with herself.
The whole film is suffused with yearning – not only the yearning of Griet and Vermeer for one another, but also Vermeer’s wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), ground down by her life with a new baby each year, longing to enter her husband’s separate world and understand him – and also longing for him to see her and paint her as he sees and paints the maid, Griet.
I also think Judy Parfitt is excellent as mother-in-law Maria, standing behind her daughter all the time, and Cillian Murphy is perfectly cast as young butcher Pieter, who woos Griet on her visits to the market. But Tom Wilkinson’s character, lecherous rich patron Van Ruijven, seems a bit caricatured and less subtly-drawn – or painted - than the other characters.