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Girl With a Pearl Earring

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Girl With a Pearl Earring

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth
Director: Peter Webber
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: January 2004
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan, Alakina Mann, David Morrissey, Anna Popplewell, Anais Nepper, Nathan Nepper

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Throughout the running of Peter Webber's film "Girl With a Pearl Earring," no typically cultured member of the audience could avoid thinking of the words of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, "'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished." This time, however, the consummation is not the gruesome one of death but of its opposite love a passion that simply cannot be fulfilled. "The year's most painterly film, broadly shows what life must have been like in the urban Holland of the mid-17th Century but more specifically deals with both the ingredients that go into a fine painting and, more important, a relationship that in a Hollywood movie would climax in, well, climax, but in this appropriately restrained treatment simply simmers. A worldly, 33-year-old married man of some artistic repute with a dozen or so kids in his Catholic family would hardly be expected to carry out a seduction with a seventeen-year-old who is illiterate, terminally shy and provincial, but the very impossibility of their union gives the film its frissons.

Webber, using Tracy Chevalier's 1998 novel adapted for the screen by Olivia Hetreed who to her credit avoids using voice- overs that such a novel would ordinarily require performs a tribute to the Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer by ensuring that his photographer, Eduardo Serra, casts particularly the outdoor scenes as though they were themselves paintings executed by Vermeer.

If you stroll through a museum, New York's Metropolitan, Madrid's Prado or The Hague's Maurithsuls and wonder what the artists were thinking as they went about their creative professions, you're not likely to come up with much that can be confirmed historically. This is rather the task of the novelist and film-maker: to employ imagination to convey possibilities. For example, in the titled work "Girl with a Pearl Earring," whose fame arises largely from Vermeer's characterization of a young woman who projects sadness and happiness at the same time, we want to know particularly what is going through the mind of the subject who is sitting for the artistic creation. This film suggests that very background.

"Girl" opens on Griet (Scarlett Johansson), plunged at the age of 17 into what is for practical purposes an alien culture when her father, a painter of tiles, goes blind. Lacking education, she must make her way as a maid, putting her into the Vermeer household, a tumultuous residence whose noise levels, furnished by a large numbers of children (think of Shawn Levy's movie "Cheaper by the Dozen"), requires the man of the house to isolate himself in his studio to concentrate on his work. Timid to the point of looking away from people who address her, pursued by Pieter (Cillian Murphy), the son of the local butcher and later lusted after by the rich patron of the arts, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkerson), Griet (pronounced Greet) unwittingly causes rampant jealousies when the painter's wife, the neurotically bawling Catharina (Essie Davis), correctly assesses the erotic power the teen has over her husband. When Catharina is ultimately betrayed by her own mother, the severe Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), the largely sedate film comes to a maddening climax.

"Girl With a Pearl Earring" is filmed alternately with green and yellow filters as Webber opens us to the surroundings: the woods, the filthy canal, the teeming marketplace populated by chickens, pigs, ducks, and one lovable dog. In fact absent the animals, the marketplace could be one in Amsterdam today, selling herrings, or the cheese market in the town of Gouda. Picturesque as olde Holland may be, this is not the kind of place that most comfortable Westerners would choose to spend a week's vacation, given the odors carried by the canal in a place that has scant ideas of human sanitation. A maid's life in such a locale is not a happy one, particularly given the hostility a pretty young woman would inevitably arouse by her mere presence, her smooth-faced looks and callow charm arousing the attentions of Vermeer and his wealthy patron, the enmity of the painter's wife and twelve-year-old daughter, and the surprising turnaround of the severe mother-in-law with her Elizabethan collar and her perverse encouragement of the Johannes-Griet bond.

Scarlett Johansson is carving out a place for herself as a performer who has already matched up to the comedic skills of Bill Murray in one my top ten picks this year, "Lost in Translation," while Colin Firth does a surprising turn as a conflicted artist who is unable to let loose with his usual, assertively romantic style. Alexandre Desplat's John-Cage-like music adds to the baroque ambiance of the piece.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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