Although the movies naturally love painters, they frequently tend to concentrate on the more familiar names and the more flamboyant lives, which explains Charlton Heston painting the Sistine Chapel in The Agony and the Ecstasy and Kirk Douglas lopping off an ear in between painting sunflowers in Lust for Life.
In Girl With a Pearl Earring, based on a pellucid and lyrical novel about the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, on the other hand, the filmmakers deal with an important artist whose relatively small production --- 35 known works --- and obscure personal history seemingly provide scanty material for the usual art biopic. In part because of the beauty and precision of the original book and its imaginative reconstruction of some small incidents in Vermeer's life, however, the movie attains a rare level of illumination and significance.
The actual protagonist of the film is a young woman named Griet (Scarlett Johansson), sent by her impoverished parents to work as a maid for the Vermeer family. The painter (Colin Firth), his wife Catharina (Essie Davis), and their several children live with her imperious mother Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), in a large house in Delft.
Uncomfortable as a Protestant in the Catholic household, overworked by the mistress, resented by her fellow servant and the children, Griet suffers her bad treatment in silence. Maria, however, orders her to clean the painter's studio, where she sees his work in progress and begins to learn about the making of art.
Most of the film deals with Griet's gradual understanding of the artist's work and the concomitant growth of her relationship with Vermeer himself. Recognizing a sensitivity to composition, construction, and color in the young woman's comments on his pictures, the painter shows her some of his methods, the way he develops his treatment of a subject, his use of the camera obscura.
He ultimately teaches her about pigment, and trusts her to grind and mix his various materials to achieve just the right colors for his paints. As she evolves into something like an assistant, she inspires even more enmity in the rest of the household and incites the anger of the jealous Catharina.
A number of small personal stories revolve around the deceptively simple business of Griet's growing understanding of the master's art. Increasingly the subject of gossip in and out of the house, she attracts the crude advances of Vermeer's patron, the sensual, lubricious Van Rujven (Tom Wilkinson), as well as the love of someone of her own social class, Pieter, the butcher's son (Cillian Murphy). The parallel developments signal her own sexual maturing. More important, though it consists of little more than a touch or two, a few words, and some glances, the real artistic and human relationship of the film involves Griet and Vermeer.
Griet becomes the inspiration and the model for one of Vermeer's most famous pictures, which shares its title with the movie. That painting provides the deepest and most enduring expression of the unspoken, unconsummated passion between master and maid. It also suggests the culmination of the slow, careful, sometimes agonizing process of Vermeer's creation. Just as the film explains the context and meaning of the portrait, the motion picture in effect illustrates the artist's picture.
In a sense, the movie serves as something of a lesson in art history, a speculative interpretation of a lovely, apparently inscrutable work of art, of all the thought and emotion that created Girl With a Pearl Earring.
The film displays some fine acting, especially in the admirable control of Scarlett Johansson, who must maintain a docile passivity of expression and gesture while reflecting a number of disparate emotions, just like the girl in the painting. There is also control in the fierce intensity of Colin Firth, who speaks little but implies a great depth and complexity of emotion. The whole cast, moreover, displays the high degree of talent and skill that characterize most British movies, at least the ones without Hugh Grant. It is a level of consistency that is rare in far too many American films.
Its greatest beauty, however, quite properly derives from its visual accomplishments, for which the director of photography, Eduardo Serra, and the production designer, Ben van Os, probably deserve the most credit. In the exterior location shots and above all, the interiors, they replicate a number of paintings by Vermeer and other Dutch masters.
Those interiors, often lit by the sun from a single window, are starkly simple in furnishing and decoration. In them, people assume the generally familiar and commonplace attitudes and gestures of the artists' usual subjects and are set among the careful geometry of the compositions, sometimes framed through a series of doorways. Every homely object glows with the incandescence of the ordinary, a specificity both experiential and painterly. These shots constitute the greatest beauty and the real triumph of the film.
Girl With a Pearl Earring is the best movie about art since the stark and spiritual Babette's Feast and the moving and baroque Tous les Matins du Monde. It isa convincing and beautiful instruction in the process and product of the creative imagination.
Girl With a Pearl Earring, starring Scarlett Johannsson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlon, Alakina Mann, Geoff Bell, Chris McHallem, Gabrielle Reidy; based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier; screenplay by Olivia Hetreed; directed by Peter Webber. Little Theatres, Pittsford Cinema.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.