Suitable for framing

Girl with a Pearl Earring

The lovely Scarlett Johansson, who really does look like she stepped out of a Johannes Vermeer painting.

The lovely Scarlett Johansson, who really does look like she stepped out of a Johannes Vermeer painting.

Rated 4.0

Girl with a Pearl Earring, like the novel by Tracy Chevalier on which it is based, takes its title from the painting by Johannes Vermeer. The painting shows a young woman looking over her shoulder, her hair bound in blue-and-cream-colored cloth, her plain clothing a sharp contrast to the rich jewel in her ear and the guarded depths of her hazel eyes. Chevalier’s novel and the movie, written by Olivia Hetreed and directed with excruciating delicacy by Peter Webber, offer a fictional story behind the painting and Vermeer’s anonymous model.

Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a young woman in 17th-century Holland whose poverty-stricken family is forced to farm her out as a servant in the home of Vermeer (Colin Firth). The Vermeer family seems only marginally better off than Griet’s: Vermeer’s wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), seems to be constantly pregnant—which may at least partly explain why she’s so short-tempered and high-strung. Vermeer himself labors slowly over each commission, trying the patience of his mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), one of those calculating, mercenary types who believes that she is single-handedly keeping the whole family out of paupers’ graves. Vermeer’s daughter (Alakina Mann), who seems to have inherited her mother’s temperament, hates Griet on sight, with the instinctive loathing that besets the truly stupid who find their intellectual betters among social inferiors.

And Griet is no common household drudge. Set to work cleaning the artist’s studio, she asks if she should wash the windows. “It might change the light,” she says. Catharina dismisses the question as unworthy of her time, but her crafty mother regards Griet with surprised, wary respect. She’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

The old woman needn’t worry; Griet knows her place—and, for that matter, Vermeer knows his. Still, there’s an understanding between them that excludes others, including Catharina and Pieter (Cillian Murphy), the butcher’s apprentice who courts Griet. The movie never says it in so many words, but implicit in the story is the observation that Griet understands Vermeer and that Catharina, if anything, is born to be a butcher’s wife (though the honest, decent Pieter hardly deserves to be saddled with her).

This situation works itself out with the logic of 1665 and in refreshing ignorance of what a 21st-century audience might expect. The impetus for Vermeer’s portrait of Griet is the attention she receives from the painter’s lecherous patron (Tom Wilkinson); by painting her, Vermeer can keep Griet out of the man’s clutches until his roving eye moves on, when the painting alone will satisfy him.

Director Webber, cinematographer Eduardo Serra and production designer Ben van Os bring Vermeer’s Holland to life just as he might have painted it, and virtually every shot in Girl with a Pearl Earring is suitable for framing. But the best reason to see the movie is Johansson’s resonant, nearly silent performance as Griet. So completely does she inhabit the character, from the top of her demure white cap to the thick soles of her wooden Dutch shoes, that it’s astonishing to learn that she was the second choice for the role, stepping in when Kate Hudson had to drop out.

I suspect Hudson might have been good; like her mother, Goldie Hawn, she has depth beyond the romantic-comedy roles she’s usually handed. But she lacks Johansson’s startling resemblance to the painting, for one thing. More important, it’s hard to imagine Kate Hudson going long without deploying her mischievous dimples, or letting her eyes reflect the guarded depths of a woman who sees more—and more clearly—than her time and place will allow her to do.

When Griet sees Vermeer’s picture, she is at once astonished and embarrassed, as if she has been discovered in her bath. “You have looked into my soul,” she tells Vermeer. But even before the first stroke of the brush, Johansson has opened Griet’s soul to us, as well. After this, and her equally candid work in Lost in Translation, I’d say Johansson’s days of getting scripts with other stars’ fingerprints on them are over.