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The International Writers Magazine
REVIEW: Girl With A Pearl Earring

Directed by Peter Webber
Written by Olivia Hetreed from Tracy Chevalier's novel

Colin Firth .... Vermeer
Scarlett Johansson .... Griet
Tom Wilkinson .... Van Ruijven
Judy Parfitt .... Maria Thins
Cillian Murphy .... Pieter
Essie Davis .... Catharina
Joanna Scanlan .... Tanneke

The plot is in essence about Griet (Johansson) an intelligent peasant girl sent to live as a maid at the painter Johannes Vermeer (Firth) who eventually becomes his muse and a model for one of his most treasured works.

Everything they say about this movie is true. Edward Sera’s cinematography is very pretty to look at, the music by Alexandre Desplat is captivating, the sense of period is accurate and Delft in Holland and Luxembourg (where it was filmed) have never been so captivating. Scarlett Johansson is beautiful in a strange way and just as in Lost in Translation we get to stare at her a lot without tiring of it.

The tensions caused by the arrival of this pretty maid in an intense and crowded painter’s household ring true. Nevertheless, the heart of this film is empty. Whether it is caused by Olivia Hetreed’s script or a fault with the original book, but as much of this film is about two people just staring at each other with little to say, you find yourself engaging with the texture on the walls and furniture. (Interesting though they are) Colin Firth, given few lines, scowls a great deal. Scarlett being a maid has few words to say at all. Perhaps the only moment of real tension comes when she deliberately moves a chair that is in the forefront of a painting he is working on and awaits Vermeer's potentially angry reaction to it. The wife Catharine (Essie Davis) has the awkward role of a vain woman driven to jealousy by her husbands obsessions with Griet. She is at least able to express herself, and the mother -in-law, played with restraint by Judy Parfitt acts as nice foil here. When Griet has trouble with one the kids, who constantly spies on her and tries to get her into trouble, it becomes, perhaps, the most real moments of the film.

However, it took me a long time to adjust to everyone in Holland speaking with English accents. Yes I would have been happier with a Dutch cast and sub-titles. It’s the same way I cannot accept Peter Pan being American in P J Hogan’s version of the story, or Bob Hoskins playing Nikita Khrushchev in Enemy at the Gates, either way it was a bridge too far. I know this was an UK based film and American’s generally won’t see anything with sub-titles so I guess it’s just my problem.

Director Peter Webber has made a period film before ‘The Double Life of Franz Schubert’ and this would have been quite a challenge given the confinement of filming in such a claustrophobic 17th Century Dutch home. All this he does well, but I would have liked to have seen the film open out a little more into the daily life of Delft and Holland in 1665. We get hints with the bankruptcy of the Vermeer neighbours and the endless financial problems of the Vermeer’s themselves, which leads to them becoming so indebted to Tom Wilkinson’s character Van Ruijven – the richest man in town. Tom Wilkinson clearly relishes his colourful role as the rich man who can have whatever he wants and he is quite a contrast to Colin Firth’s mute Vermeer.
In the end, it is all Tracy Chevalier’s speculation and fantasy. This is a worthy film, prettily shot and acted but fails to engage the soul.

© Sam North Jan 26th 2004

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