Directed by Peter Webber, starring Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy and Essie Davis.
Tracy Chevalier's best-selling book 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' takes an enigmatic painting and traces an imagined story behind it. If the literary context isn't visual enough, capturing it on film - and doing it justice - definitely is.
Focusing on the life and work of Johannes Vermeer, the narrative zooms in on the burgeoning closeness between two individuals who initially seem worlds apart. Griet (Johansson) is 17 and forced into the world of domestic service when her ceramist father has an accident. She joins the hectic household of Vermeer (Firth) and the painter soon realises the girl has an artistic eye. Griet assists with mixing paints and the old Master listens to her suggestions about light and form. They love art and respect each other but for all their shared passion, the relationship remains platonic.
This, however, is not how everyone else sees it. The painter's wife seethes with jealousy while his pompous patron van Ruijven (Wilkinson) manipulates both for his own good. While it's clear that a relationship between master and servant could never happen, Griet is still captivated by his talent. The life she would be expected to have is represented by Pieter (Murphy), an amiable butcher boy. At first Griet is ambivalent towards him but he soon proves to be her saviour, convincing her of the danger she is in if she remains in Vermeer's house.
While the pace is very slow-moving, it directs us towards the main relationship in the film. The scenes leading up to and including the actual painting of Vermeer's famous work are dramatic and tense with anticipation. The audience is shown the lengths Vermeer goes to in order to borrow his wife's earrings for the painting. This isn't due to his obsession with accessories but with his perfectionism for light and detail in his work. From start to finish the film has a painterly quality. Every scene teems with shadows and light. The nuances of colour take on more meaning and you find yourself picking up on visual clues and signposts. Whether it's the house, the canals or the markets, every set layout is just like one of Vermeer's own paintings.
Johansson could make a living out of only playing opposite older men (see 'Lost in Translation') as she does it so well. The connection between her and Firth's character is strong but not over-played. There are lots of 'quiet' scenes where dialogue is secondary to what's actually happening on the screen. This won't be everyone's oil painting but it's worth seeing for the performances alone - an honourable mention should go to Tom Wilkinson as the sleazy patron.