A more agreeable, less inflated historical fantasy than Big Fish (see above), Girl With a Pearl Earring signals its interest in what Fernand Braudel called the “structures of everyday life” with an opening close-up of its 17th-century teenage protag Griet (Scarlett Johansson) peeling an onion.
If the spectacle of a soberly becapped young woman bathed by sunlight as she slices veggies by the kitchen window evokes the golden age of Dutch genre painting—you’ve come to the right place. A first theatrical feature by documentarian Peter Webber, adapted from Tracy Chevalier’s bestseller, Girl With a Pearl Earring tells the tale of how young Griet came to work as a maid in the Delft household of the painter Johannes Vermeer and wound up modeling for one of his supreme masterpieces, The Girl With a Pearl Earring, also known as Girl in Turban, and less officially, the “Mona Lisa of the North.”
Vermeer, whose paintings may be the world’s rarest, is fellow Dutchman Vincent van Gogh’s only rival as a posthumously appreciated genius. In an odd fashion, the men are almost contemporaries; Vermeer’s revaluation began in the period of post-impressionism, the taste for his better-than-photo photo-realism itself post-photographic. Griet, however, is a natural connoisseur: Hired as a slavey in the tumultuously miserable Vermeer household, she stumbles upon the master’s sacred studio, replete with props and setups now famous from his paintings—as well as the camera obscura, subject of another debate, that functions as his secret weapon.
As Griet’s sensitive attempt to wash the windows inspires Vermeer’s Woman With a Water Jug, she’s privileged to watch that masterpiece come into existence and is soon mixing Vermeer’s paints and glazes, and even offering compositional ideas. Not exactly Master and Commander stuff, this Braudelian action is hyped by the strenuously dancing snowflakes of Alexandre Desplat’s over-sparkly score—as is the complex domestic conspiracy that brings a priceless trophy of Western culture into existence.
Delft is impressively evoked, and Griet, assumed by her betters to live in a world beneath intelligence, is a perfect “everyday” subject. Vermeer (Colin Firth) is portrayed as taciturn and glowering. The artist might well brood, annoyingly saddled with a blubbering bovine wife (Essie Davis), a micromanaging mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), a small army of children, and a lip-smacking, troublemaking patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). The smarmy Van Ruijven has his eye on Griet, but the modest girl refuses even to remove her cap. (Quiet as Girl With a Pearl Earring is, the moment when Vermeer spies Griet’s cascade of auburn hair makes for a superbly Muslim moment.)
Girl With a Pearl Earring cannot help but sensitize the viewer to its own use of light and color. It’s a daring ploy with unavoidably mixed results—especially since a colleague insists that the eponymous piece of jewelry was, in fact, a pendant of polished pewter. As the imaginary historical subject, Johansson holds her frequent close-ups with considerable authority. Wide-eyed, open-mouthed, and silently beseeching, she’s even more a screen for projection here than in Lost in Translation; surrounded by a gaggle of over-actors, she glows with understatement.