A beautiful ‘Girl’ with a tinny voice“Girl With a Pearl Earring” is an ambitious project that fails. It’s as if the director, Peter Webber, had been overflowing with good ideas, and threw them all in. But he never fully develops any of them, and the result is a superficial film in an arthouse package.
Based on Tracy Chevalier’s book ― an imagining of the story behind Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 painting, “Girl With a Pearl Earring” ― the movie tries to be a quiet, intense beauty. Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a young servant of the Vermeer family. Webber tries to make this a strange household, with the moody painter husband (Colin Firth); a sensual wife who’s always pregnant, Catharina (Essie Davis); a wayward child, Cornelia (Alakina Mann); a controlling mother-in-law, Maria (Judy Parfitt), and an old and lecherous patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson).
Lovely Griet stirs up the household. Catharina is jealous of her. Vermeer is attracted to her. Cornelia despises her. Maria needs her. Van Ruijven wants her. But none of these emotions are explored, nor are any of the characters developed. If Vermeer wants Griet, it’s only apparent in her hard breathing and his beady gaze. If Griet inspires Vermeer, it’s not as a muse, but as a student who intuitively grasps color and light.
Which brings another criticism to mind. In this movie, Johansson is one of those girls who are beautiful as long as they aren’t talking. She’s ludicrously demure, acting the part of the damsel with heaving bosom, heavy eyelids, and a reluctance to look directly at whoever is speaking to her. She’s always shocked when people enter the room; apparently, no one in this household knocks, or makes any noise while walking. This works the first time, maybe the second time, but not the third and certainly not the fourth.
The production, cinematography and music are at times lovely; the actors’ voices, in fact, come to feel like intrusions. Half the dialogue comes off as a writer’s attempt to show off knowledge that doesn’t add to the story even slightly. We learn that the color Indian yellow, for instance, is made from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves. Are we watching a “How to Mix Paint” instructional film? The joke this leads to is a labored attempt to sound clever. I began to wish this were a silent film.
The plot is straightforward, but the attempts to create a sense of drama are poorly executed. Why is Griet, for instance, tested on her ability to distinguish the age of meat, if it has no bearing on anything that happens later? (Or is this supposed to be how she caught the heart of the butcher’s son?) So what if Griet is a Protestant working for a Catholic family? The least Webber can do after throwing in that tidbit is to create tension over it, but he doesn’t.
This is Webber’s first feature, and his inexperience in focusing and following through on ideas shows. The audience I was in started laughing at a few scenes that were supposed to be about seduction.
Eduardo Serra’s cinematography has moments of grace. Ben van Os’s work on production design melds beautifully with that of costume designer Dien van Straalen. The saving grace of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is the guidance of these people. And still, their talent is not fully realized. The tagline of this movie is “beauty inspires obsession.” A few yawns is more like it.
“Girl With a Pearl Earring”
Drama / English
by Joe Yong-hee
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