When Girl with a Pearl Earring first came through Spokane last winter, I went to see it with two artsy/literary friends. My friend Kris enjoyed it as much as I did, but her husband Andy kept insisting that "it was nice to look at, but what was it about?" And try as we did to explain it, I continued to feel this nagging sense that maybe all I require from a movie is good lighting, historically accurate costumes and Colin Firth stomping about some pretty room in nice boots. Throw in a few close-ups of still life-worthy food -- cheese, apples, cabbage -- being sliced on a worn serving board and I'm in for the next two hours.
Inspired by the painting Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, the novel by Tracy Chevalier is an elegant interpretation of what little is known about Vermeer's real life subjects. The young woman's servant costume and slightly cringing posture, contrasted with her knowing expression, parted lips and luxurious single pearl earring, led Chevalier to wonder more about the sexual/class politics at work inside Vermeer's large, robust household. In the film, Vermeer is played by Colin Firth, whose basso British murmurings and regal bearing made him the perfect Lord Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. His role here is much more ambiguous -- his Vermeer is not so much a romantic hero of fine moral standing as he is a man constrained by marriage and circumstance. Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) plays a quiet young maid who comes to work in his household. She's luminous and surprisingly perfect for the role -- there is none of the smirky superiority she's displayed in both previous roles and interviews.
Together the two embark on a sort of relationship, but the film's ending is both full of ambivalence and more realistic than its potboiler-ish elements might lead the viewer to expect. In some ways, the film is more appreciable as an art history lesson -- not so much for historical fact as there is very little, but for its painstaking attention to detail. The mixing of various paints gets its own worthwhile scene, and a shot of a country lane where two characters walk is rendered in the muted green of a Netherlands twilight. It might not be the most satisfying film you could rent in terms of story resolution, but it's surprisingly delicious to watch.