Girl With the Pearl Earring

dir: Peter Webber
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The camera loves Scarlett Johansson’s face, there is no doubt of that. So much attention, so many shots amount to little more than the camera going into close-up to let her acting play out on the canvass of her face. Her lips and eyes get to do most of the acting. Having little opportunity to speak, true to her role as a poor 17th Century maid working for rich folks in the city of Delft, in the Netherlands, most of her work has to be purely from body language and the little dialogue she’s entitled to. Most of the time she is trying to speak, but because of who she is, where she is, that access to her own ‘voice’ is devastatingly rare. Her struggle to speak rarely countermands her ingrained idea of her ‘place’. More overtly she is specifically told by the lady of the house to only speak when spoken to.

As almost a mute she still holds centre stage and our attention, as the story focus is on her and her less than wicked ways. Thus the story, apart from being a purely fanciful extrapolation of the possible life of the subject of one of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings that the film shares as its title, is essentially feminist in its narrative. In a way the film belongs to the category of film I like to refer to as the ‘life sucks’ genre. To pare it down even further, recalling my use of the ‘f’ word, the film belongs to the sub-genre of ‘gee, didn’t life suck for poor girls back then?’

Our main character Griet works as a maid for the Vermeer family. Being poor and uneducated, and this being the 1670s or so, her options are really very limited. As a maid for a large house she is required to work virtually the length of the day and into the night. Her hands are perpetually red and scabbed from work and from being burned in the kitchen. In other words, as I said before, it sucked to be a poor woman in the 1700s.

These days impoverished women at least in the Western world still have access to Oprah and to the internet so that they can read my reviews and feel better about their lot in life. Griet did not have that luxury back then, for obvious reasons. She is from the lowest of the low, the invisible ‘help’ who is one minuscule step above indentured servitude. Thus she is at the mercy of the goodwill of her employers and their friends.

Humorous to me is her mother’s parting words as Griet is about to be ‘given’ to the Vermeer household: she urges her to cover her ears whenever the Catholics pray lest the witchcraft of their words penetrate her Protestant ears.

Despite her lack of education, Griet is clever in her own way, and conveniently as it turns out considering who she works for, capable of grasping many of the complexities of artistic representation without having been taught. Through this she forms a bond with the man of the house, Johannes Vermeer. Needless to say this leads to many and varying conflicts over the course of the film.

The story portrays Vermeer as extremely talented and respected, but ultimately at the mercy of his despicable patron Van Ruijven (played odiously by Tom Wilkinson), in an interesting parallel to Griet’s circumstances. However the difference is that Vermeer is still essentially middle-class. The money he requires isn’t for subsistence level survival, it is to maintain a large house, his perpetually pregnant wife and her mother, and his gaggle of vicious children, some more so than others.

The story needs Vermeer to be portrayed as a moody, driven, potentially brutal character, so it’s handy that they have Colin Firth on hand to wear a wig and play the character as if he’s playing Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights all over again. The wig is particularly noteworthy, in that it recalls the majesty of the hair as worn not by Dutch men in the 1700s, but more so the hairstyle and manner of a guitarist from an 80s hair metal band like Def Leppard or Whitesnake.

Vermeer’s wife, and in fact most of the characters in the story apart from Griet are played entirely unsympathetically. They all pretty much exist as people whose indifference or motiveless malice is helpfully provided in order to make Griet’s existence even harder to endure. A local butcher boy Pieter (played in a stupid hat by Cillian Murphy) is nice to her, but he exists as a counterpoint to Vermeer: the poor, honest, hard-working simpleton guy versus the talented, passionate, brilliant bourgeois artist.

The conflicts arise unfairly from all sides: one of the children Cornelia resents Griet simply for being around, the other servants badmouth her just for something to do and to in their minds improve their lot in life, Van Ruijven wants to use and abuse her the way he generally feels he is entitled to with all female servants, and Vermeer’s wife resents her simply because she is young and comely. And not pregnant all the time, presumably.

Despite this level of conflict, none of the other characters are really developed at all as much as Griet, and all we learn about Griet comes from her body language. So it’s not a film big on the talking and stuff. That being said, apart from credibly representing life back then, the film excels in doing what its inspiration does: managing to portray its milieu and the mise en scene in the most visually sumptuous manner possible. The attention to detail, the approach taken to mimic the light, the shadow, the construction of the Flemish masters, especially (obviously) the works of Vermeer is simply exquisitely breathtaking. The cinematography by Eduardo Serra is simply amazing. On what would have been a minuscule budget comparatively they (being the DP, director Peter Webber and the set designers of course) have managed to create probably the most beautiful looking film I’ve seen this year that didn’t require a lick of digital trickery, although I’m guessing in the editing suite a certain amount of colour amplification must have occurred. The colours, the blues and golds, and the depth of shadow, it just looked amazing.

I can’t emphasise those elements enough; it is visually stunning. Though the story may have something lacking in terms of characterisation, the central themes are well realised. Also well realised is the growing sexual tension between Griet and Vermeer, which is represented with subtlety and aching tenderness. Whilst Vermeer himself is shown to be mostly an unprincipled player, the complexity of the situation that he is put in trying to protect Griet from his wife and his patron is reasonably well thought out. The lessons he begins to give her in terms of the ‘work’ of painting, perspective and mixing colours start off seeming somewhat patronising, but become more interesting when we realise that in Griet he sees a kindred spirit with whom he can share his inspiration and his work, something which he cannot do with his annoying wife. Of course this just gives her another reason to hate Griet.

The central issue, the central wellspring from which the idea for the story comes from: the hypothetical circumstances surrounding the painting of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes up organically towards the end of the film. How that plays out is pretty well thought out. The symbolism of Griet’s sacrifice in terms of having to be pierced painfully by a needle at Vermeer’s behest in order to be able to wear the pearl earring that forms the film’s culmination is not subtle, but it is moving and disturbing at the same time. The sacrifices that Griet is required to make for her master’s genius are unending, but not entirely against her will, which displays a certain amount of complexity. That being said the film is anything but dense. It’s definitely a pretty light picture, which probably will be remembered for little else apart from its visuals.

There is a thread of sensuality that plays through the film, not least of which and not restrained solely to scenes with Griet and Vermeer. Of course those are the more overt ones, such as fingers accidentally brushing together, or Vermeer’s repeated request to Griet to lick her lower lip, which sounds almost pornographic to someone that hasn’t seen it, but is both erotic and demure at the same time, in keeping with Griet’s character.

Whether my opinion of the lack of character development for all the characters except Griet is accurate or not, the fact is that everyone puts in perfect performances, not least of which is Scarlett Johannson. All match the material with the right amount of underselling or quiet intensity, or going right off at the appropriate time, and for a period piece it is a joy to behold. The story doesn’t really have anywhere to go, and as such Griet almost seems to be suffocating under the strictures of 17th century society as well as the structure of the film, but it remains an admirably well thought out and realised film. The real star apart from Scarlett’s face is the set design, which never fails to make the scene look dirty and ‘real’, whilst simultaneously replicating many of Vermeer’s paintings at the same time. It reminds me of the manner in which Frida Kahlo’s artworks were integrated into the story in Julie Taymor’s biopic of the artist’s life, but here the integration is more prosaic, less theatrical and more organic. It represents the ‘world’ of the artist as the world as shown in his paintings, as opposed to the escape or transformation of the world through an artist’s imaginings.

A beautiful film, to be sure. Definitely one that will bore many people to tears, but one that I enjoyed.

7 times that Scarlett's going to go very, very far, the little minx.

"I shall put it in the book, then: "Owed by Griet: one smile." " Girl With the Pearl Earring