Film With a Vermeer Pedigree

Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson look pensive in the period romance, Girl with a Pearl Earring. (courtesy photo)

Solemn, almost silent, cinema tells the story behind a precious painting

Who has not walked through a museum imagining the back stories to works hung on the walls? Tracy Chevalier does it for a living, and both Girl With a Pearl Earring and her current bestseller, The Lady and the Unicorn, have made that living bountiful. Peter Webber, a British TV director making his theatrical feature debut, carries the process one stage further, from painting to novel to film. His Girl With a Pearl Earring is a cinematic tableau vivant, except that the picture does not exactly come alive. Like Masterpiece Theater, it comes to make us feel like connoisseurs, not just consumers.

The opening images, both domestic and sensual, of a woman chopping onions, immediately evoke the luscious Dutch interiors of Johannes Vermeer. The year is 1665, the city Delft, and a decline in family fortunes forces 17-year-old Griet (Johansson) to take a job as a scullery maid in the Vermeer residence. In addition to doing the marketing, washing the windows, scrubbing the floors, and laundering the dirty clothes, Griet must learn to maneuver her way through a stranger's messy household politics. Vermeer's wife, Catharina (Davis), is

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Dir. Peter Webber; writ. Olivia Hetreed, based on a novel by Tracy Chevalier; feat. Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis (PG-13)
perpetually pregnant, and her brood is numerous, boisterous, and intrusive. A dour domestic tyrant, Catharina's mother, Maria (Parfitt), maintains command, deferential only to Van Ruijven (Wilkinson), the wealthy, wanton patron who flits in and out to commission paintings from her son-in-law. It is his capital that controls their lives. "You're a fly in his web," Maria tells Griet when Van Ruijven makes lecherous demands on her, "We all are." An enigmatic figure sequestered in his studio a floor above the others, Johannes Vermeer himself (Firth) does not appear until a third of the way through the movie.

When he does reveal his pensive face, it is mostly to brood in silence. In fact, much of Girl With a Pearl Earring has the feel of a dumb show, a succession of exquisite frames brilliantly arranged and lit in which characters do not so much act as pose. It is a triumph of Eduardo Serra's cinematography, in which the point seems to be to extend the experience of viewing Vermeer beyond the scant oeuvre that the master left behind. Griet, who is so laconic that a viewer might conclude she and the others resent a script that requires

Scarlett Johansson poses for the portrait that inspires the title of Girl with a Pearl Earring. (courtesy photo)

they speak English rather than their native Dutch, gradually gains the trust of the man of the house, and the jealousy of his wife. Vermeer initiates her into the arcane intricacies of preparing paints and of using the camera oscura. He agrees to paint a secret solo portrait of his beautiful young servant for Van Ruijven's private, pornographic delectation. Vermeer pierces the virgin Griet's ears and places his wife's precious baubles on them. Eventually, the film Girl With a Pearl Earring provides us with the privileged illusion of being present at the creation of the painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

A Calvinist interloper in a Catholic world where even a carrot carries intimations of forbidden pleasure, nubile young Griet is wary of erotic awakenings. It is clear from the way she arranges vegetables on a platter and a chair in the studio that, were she not poor and female, she would be an artist like Vermeer. At the end, the famous painting is completed, and Griet has left the master's household for an uncertain future. A follow-up film might well trace the fate of a spirited single woman in 17th-century Holland. But the true sequel to Girl With a Pearl Earring would be another attempt at imagining the back story of a famous painting - say, Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass," Velasquez' "Las Meninas," or Goya's "Naked Maja." A director who started out with Warhol might end up opening a whole can of soup. In his History of the World, Part I, Mel Brooks made mirth out of Leonardo's creation of "The Last Supper." Out of Vermeer's precious painting of a nacreous deposit attached to an unknown ear, Webber makes solemn, almost silent cinema. •