Girl with a Pearl Earring is a beautiful, subtly decorated historical drama
Scarlett Johansson seems so perfectly cast in the title role of Girl with a Pearl Earring that it almost feels as if the whole thing had been written expressly for her.
But Peter Webber’s film is of course adapted from the much-admired novel by Tracy Chevalier, and it is no mere star vehicle. Indeed, as good as Johansson is, Pearl Earring‘s greatest power and appeal emerge from the brilliant ensemble work in its low-key version of historical drama.
Both novel and film are speculatively concerned with the work and home life of the great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer circa 1665, the period in which he painted the beloved masterpiece to which the title refers. Johansson plays Griete, daughter of an ailing painter who comes to work as a maid in the Vermeer household. She catches the eye of Vermeer (Colin Firth) and of his grandly lascivious patron van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson)—in the case of the former because of her natural curiosity and intuitive insight about the ingredients of his paintings.
Sexual tension develops in both cases, directly and menacingly with van Ruijven, and indirectly but no less intensely with Vermeer. The butcher’s son Peter (Cillian Murphy), her likeliest suitor, is in the mix too. But the fullest and richest drama emerges in terms of the intricate interplay of emotions and motives among the women in the household—including especially Vermeer’s wife (Essie Davis), his imperious mother-in-law (Judy Profitt), the bitterly envious daughter Cordelia (Alakina Mann), the senior maid Tanneke (Joanna Scanlan) and Griete herself.
What ensues is a kind of half-repressed melodrama, with intense emotions leaked and evoked through telltale glances, small gestures, treasured objects and quietly deflected obsessions. All this gains a special intensity from mise en scene and montage which weave multiple points of view into the unfolding action. But the deepest strengths are in the key performances—Firth’s guilty, defiant silences, Johansson’s innocence and intelligence, Profitt’s regal blend of high-mindedness and practicality, Scanlan’s earthy savvy and durability, and—perhaps best of all—Davis’ dazed, convoluted willfulness.
Cinematographer Eduardo Serra has drawn deserved kudos for his replications of scenes from Vermeer’s paintings, but his accomplishment here is larger than that. His rendering of dark and shadowy interiors in which light and color take on exceptional kinds of meaning is crucial to the film’s quietly impassioned meditation on the kinships of painting, sex and domestic life.