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Girl With a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber)

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003, Peter Webber)

Art Historical Fiction: the wave of the future? Probably not, but this adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s novel does an interesting job of putting a person behind the face of one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous paintings.

I’m no art buff, so I couldn’t tell you how much of this story is supposition and how much is historical fact, but I can tell you that after Lost In Translation I would watch Scarlett Johansson read the dictionary and pay $8.50 for the privilege. Luckily for me, this movie’s a bit more interesting than the dictionary. Griet (Johansson) is a Protestant peasant girl sent to work as a maid for Vermeer (Colin Firth, managing to look a little less uptight than usual, with the help of hair extensions). Like Lost In Translation, the relationship of the older man and younger woman is mostly chaste, with a touch of the hand standing in for the sex that would surely have happened in a more Hollywood production. There is a scene that is as obvious a Freudian sexual substitute as anything put on film, but for the most part the film explores much more subtle relations.

Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later shows up as Pieter, a butcher’s son (with ridiculous hair extensions) in love with Griet, but he has little to do other than look pretty, which admittedly he does very well. Essie Davis plays Vermeer’s wife, Catharina, with just the right note of injury–you want to slap her, but you feel for her. Judy Parfitt, of the Dame Maggie Smith school of acting, dominates the screen when she appears as Vermeer’s mother-in-law, but even she is dominated by Tom Wilkinson as Vermeer’s lecherous patron, who commands the painting that throws the household into upheaval.

Johansson does not here have as much opportunity to showcase her skills as she did in Lost In Translation, instead spending much of the film with varying looks of wonder and fear on her face. The thing that people continue to pick Johansson for is the look in her eyes–mature, yet vulnerable. For that alone, the film is worth seeing, even if you haven’t much interest in art or in domestic drama. The false note in this film comes from Firth, who seems out of place in all that hair, and when placed next to Murphy, seems all too henpecked and serious to be an object of love. Although maybe I just prefer Irish men to English.

Now playing at Chez Artiste –


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