Watching Peter Webber’s new film “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is like trying to look at a masterful painting while listening to a crying baby: the noise just keeps getting in the way. At first glance the production looks remarkably promising, combining veteran actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Colin Firth with up-and-comers like Scarlett Johansson. Unfortunately the film fails to deliver any surprises, journeying so far into familiar territory as to be boring. Webber’s tale of a misunderstood artist and the woman who loves him joins the burgeoning ranks of a sub-genre of the period piece: the tragic genius film. While many of the other members of this category contributed something to cinema, unfortunately all “Girl with a Pearl Earring” proves is that enigma does not protect against melodrama.
The enigma in this case is the painter Johannes Vermeer, who was born in the 1600s, worked in Delft and was arguably Holland’s greatest artist. With only a few official papers that contain his name in the hands of historians, his life remains sparsely detailed at best. This lack of documentation allowed Tracy Chevalier to write a fairly decent novel in 2001 centered around Vermeer’s most famous painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The film follows the same story, spinning the tale of a young peasant girl named Griet (Scarlett Johansson) who is sent by her family to work as a maid in the house of Vermeer (Colin Firth). The two women of the house who lord it over Griet, Vermeer’s wife Catharina and his mother-in-law, are both tough and practical, and their only care for painting is the money it brings. Griet, however, loves looking at Vermeer’s canvasses and he in turn loves looking at Griet. To him, she is the only one who truthfully takes an interest in his work.
All of this is melodramatic enough without Olivia Hetreed’s tepid screen adaptation which pushes the film into the realm of soap opera. Line after line paints ulterior motives onto the characters that either don’t make sense or are overdone, and would have benefited from more subtly. Hetreed even goes so far as to use cliches without any spin to make them original: “We are all caught in his web” is one of her worst. Not once is it possible to believe the level of intrigue easily worthy of Queen Elizabeth surrounding Griet and Vermeer. Worse, Hetreed stays on the surface, writing “Girl with a Pearl Earring” as if it were a cheap thriller. The problem may partially lie in Chevalier’s material: there just isn’t enough there for a gripping story line. Yet Hetreed said about the book, “The domestic setting is deceptive. I saw it as a cinematic thriller from the start.” Perhaps a repeat visit to the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum or a dunk in the canal outside would have been wise.
Luckily, the acting manages to partially rise above the mediocre script. In an interesting if not altogether convincing character choice, Firth’s Vermeer is timid and quiet. His personality seems so entirely demagnetized that it is hard to imagine that such emotional paintings could come from his brush. He spends most of the film cowering in his studio like a caged animal, leaving the bravery and most of the acting to Griet. Johansson is up to the task, fighting gallantly with the inflated script to add some much needed subtlety to the film. Her Griet is tough, hiding her inner light behind an appropriately dumb apathy to protect herself from all of the unpleasantries that surround peasant life. One of these is Vermeer’s patron, Master van Ruijven, played lecherously by Tom Wilkinson. In contrast to Johansson’s tempered performance, Ruijven’s is over the top, as he harangues Vermeer and attacks Griet. The usually brilliant Wilkinson seems far too angry and coarse for a patron of the arts; maybe he sees the suspicious connections between “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “The Governess,” the far superior period film he starred in with Minnie Driver that tells almost exactly the same story. In any case, his mind seems to be disengaged from the performance.
Despite its pitiful script and mediocre acting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is still a film worth seeing solely for its cinematography. The exciting visual premise of Webber’s adaptation, the fact that he can shoot his film in the style of Vermeer, is a triumphant success. Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is textured enough to peel off the screen, and his use of color and light rivals Vermeer’s himself. To make the cutting of red cabbage look like the blooming of a black rose takes amazing skill, yet Serra accomplishes it in the very first shot. The characters themselves are treated just as intimately. Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria Thins is treated by the camera as if she is right out of a Flemish masterpiece, the wrinkles of her face twisting in the candlelight. Every interior reflects the Dutch fascination with keyhole views through windows and doors. Vermeer’s house is full of half-open doorways and windows beckoning in the background. The exteriors are just as expertly crafted, sometimes with pastel city squares and other times with tones of green and orange in a sky that glows against rows of trees.
Sadly all this talent only manages to muster the feel of a diorama when paired with the other elements of the film. The story flattens out the visuals, unmaking the reality that Serra painstakingly tries to create. After all the intrigue is finished, after all the money and effort has been expended, the simple, no-frills last shot draws more emotion and attention than all the rest: a long zoom out, starting on the earring of Vermeer’s enigmatic painting itself.