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"GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING"
(2003) (Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A young 17th century maid becomes intrigued by and then inspires a painter and his work.
PLOT:
It's Delft, Holland in the mid-17th century and 17-year-old Griet (SCARLETT JOHANSSON) has been sent by her parents (CHRIS MCHALLEM and GABRIELLE REIDY) to work as a maid to support their family. She ends up in the home of Johannes Vermeer (COLIN FIRTH), a master painter who mostly works for his wealthy patron, Van Ruijven (TOM WILKINSON).

Despite the constant work, things aren't peachy keen there. Johannes' wife, Catharina (ESSIE DAVIS), is constantly pregnant and jealous of her husband's work, while her mother, Maria Thins (JUDY PARFITT), keeps a tight fist on the family's purse strings. And her granddaughter, Cornelia (ALAKINA MANN), isn't pleased with Griet's arrival.

Nevertheless, and with the aid of fellow maid Tanneke (JOANNA SCANLAN), the young woman learns about her duties that include cleaning Johannes' studio. It's there that she becomes mesmerized by his work and he for her obvious eye for art. That doesn't sit well with Catharina. Despite the local butcher's son, Pieter (CILLIAN MURPHY), being sweet on Griet, Catharina senses something between her and Johannes.

From that point on, and as Johannes finds inspiration in Griet, their working together and his painting of her soon drives a wedge into the family that threatens to spell disaster.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The same obviously applies to paintings, although the word count might be higher for them. That's because some people spend hours and even lifetimes studying certain works trying to ascertain, decipher or simply guess what a given painting means and/or what inspired it.

One of the more famous ones in the latter category has always been Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. Painted around 1665, the work first appears as simplistic as the title suggests. Yet the young woman and particularly the look on her face leaves a great deal open to interpretation. Is it a look of fear, melancholy or happiness? And exactly who is she and what relationship, if any, did she have with Vermeer?

Such questions spurred author Tracy Chevalier to write a fictionalized account addressing such matters. Now screenwriter Olivia Hetreed (making her debut) and director Peter Webber (also making his debut) have adapted that novel into a movie bearing the same name. The result is a gorgeous looking if slow moving costume drama that feature solid performances from the leads and just enough story to satiate art and art house aficionados.

In a way, the effort is thematically similar to "Frida" and other films featuring young women and their effects on troubled and/or flamboyant artists. That Salma Hayek picture, however, had an advantage over this one. Not only did it have a great deal more story to it, but it also featured a strong-willed and driven protagonist rather than a timid and subservient one.

While the latter qualities work for the way in which the character and story are concocted - Vermeer becoming mesmerized by his wife's maid - it does hamper the film's dramatic thrust and momentum. That's because rather than working toward a goal, the character simply reacts. It's nowhere near a monumentally debilitating flaw, but it does undermine the effort no matter the intentions or setup.

It's not difficult to note that some of the latter is obviously designed to emulate Vermeer's work. Much is left to the viewer's imagination and interpretation of what occurs, and the overall work does have something of a visually hypnotic lure to it. In an overall sense, not much occurs on the surface, but just like the painting, all sorts of undercurrents are flowing beneath it.

One can thank Scarlett Johansson ("Lost in Translation," "Ghost World") for much of that as she delivers yet another terrific if obviously understated performance. Not only does she fit the bill from a physical standpoint - she's about as perfectly cast as anyone could hope - but she also nails the part from an emotional and reactive perspective. Matching the painting's nebulous quality, one can't always tell what's going on behind the facial expression.

Although his is, in essence, more of a supporting than leading role, Colin Firth ("Love Actually," "What a Girl Wants") is good as the troubled real-life painter who similarly shields much of his emotional state through a blank look (and surprisingly looks a great deal like Gary Sinise with long locks). Some may view such minimalist acting as easy or lazy, but there's obviously a great deal of subtext to it.

Among the rest of the supporting cast, Judy Parfitt ("Ever After," "Wilde") is appropriately chilly as the mother-in-law character who controls the family purse strings; Essie Davis (the two "Matrix" sequels) appears as the chronically pregnant and jealous wife, and Tom Wilkinson ("In the Bedroom," "The Patriot") plays the family's benefactor who decidedly turns into an even nastier fellow than first imagined. A subplot featuring Cillian Murphy ("Cold Mountain," "28 Days Later") as Griet's young love interest, though, seems malnourished and includes a sexual encounter that feels out of place.

Notwithstanding that, the exquisite technical work - the score, costumes, camerawork and art direction are all topnotch - may cause some to chalk this up as yet another staid, dull and long costume drama. While there's some validity to that viewpoint, the effort is much like a great piece of art. On the surface, it appears in one way, but upon closer examination, there's more to it on deeper levels.

That doesn't mean that the film is a masterpiece by any means - as there simply isn't enough story to sustain a reactive rather than proactive protagonist. Yet, there was something to "Girl with a Pearl Earring" that impressed me enough to award it a rating of 6 out of 10.




Reviewed January 5, 2004 / Posted January 9, 2004


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