A Vermeer is truly dazzling. On the surface, we marvel at the artist’s gift for capturing natural light and real-world resplendence, the minutiae of physical detail that point to and deepen our understanding of the paintings’ subjects. His subjects are mostly women, usually alone—a maidservant or a noblewoman—engrossed in a private, ordinary moment, reading a love letter or performing a household chore. It is of these candid moments, of what they reveal of class, lifestyle, and, most subtly, of the personal drama unfolding in his protagonists’ lives, lying just beneath his glorious surfaces, that Vermeer is the peerless master.
“Girl With a Pearl Earring,” directed by Peter Webber and adapted by Olivia Hetreed from Tracy Chevalier’s novel, is named after one of Vermeer’s paintings. “Girl” speculates on the identity of the painting’s subject—a somber but alluring young woman who stares back at us forlornly—and the events surrounding her posing for Vermeer. “Girl” wants to emulate the painter’s subtle aesthetic as it fashions a story of domestic and erotic intrigue. Webber gets his surfaces brilliantly right, but, whereas the merest gestures and looks in a Vermeer are so carefully chosen that they can reveal oceans of insight, “Girl” leaves us to splash about in a murky puddle of underdeveloped scenes. I am not trying to hold Webber to Vermeer’s standard, just suggesting that the director falteringly aspires to a style and dramaturgy that few artists of any discipline can pull off.
By virtue of her pale, saturnine face, Scarlet Johansson looks born to play Griet, the peasant girl-turned-maidservant who becomes Vermeer’s muse. Johansson is “Girl’s” trump card; any single shot of her looks miraculously like one of Vermeer’s own women has stepped off the canvas and onto a movie screen. Eduardo Serra’s masterful cinematography and Ben van Os’ production design richly and uncannily evoke the color palette and mood of Vermeer’s world.
When Griet, a pauper’s daughter, takes a job in Vermeer’s household, she sets off a chain of jealousy, greed and lust that rattles everybody around her and inspires one of the artist’s most well-known works. This is potentially riveting material, but Webber’s movie never quite overcomes the well-trodden trope and cliché, leaving two wonderful actors, Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson, in desperately shallow waters. As Vermeer, for instance, Firth is just another taciturn, brooding artist and, as his saucy patron, Wilkinson founders as your standard dirty-old-man with an eye for young housemaids. Johansson, with her sensual, expressive face, surpasses the material best—as a girl on the brink of sexual awakening, she delicately conveys vulnerability and sensuality at once.
To be fair, the details of Vermeer’s life are sketchy. But, rather than flesh out the lack of historical fact with tantalizing fabulation (this is fiction, after all), Webber sticks fussily to his story’s bare skeleton. “Girl” gives us a vividly painted world but only patchily drawn characters — in that sense, it gets Vermeer only half right.
Directed by: Peter Webber
Written by: Tracy Chevalier
Cast: Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Alakina Mann