“Girl With a Pearl Earring” could be said to be about a lot of things. It’s a highly speculative recreation of the private and professional life of Dutch artist Jan Vermeer, of course. It also touches on the economic power of patronage during the early capitalist era. It’s about the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the curious domestic arrangements of the early modern period. It even glances at Protestant-Catholic antagonisms of that era.
But what first-time feature director Peter Webber’s adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s well-regarded novel is really about is the power of cinematography. (He’s previously made some telefilms.) Working closely with production designer Ben van Os, art director Christina Schaffer, set designer Todd Van Hulzen, set decorator Cecile Heideman, costume designer Dien van Straalen, makeup and hair designer Jennu Shircore and especially the brilliant cameraman Eduardo Serra, Webber has fashioned a film in which virtually every shot resembles one of Vermeer’s canvases. The composition, the lighting, and the arrangement pf colors combine to offer a succession of intoxicating images that dazzle the eye. This may be the best-realized effort of its kind since “Barry Lyndon.”
But–and you could hear that coming, couldn’t you?–while Kubrick’s film, with its jaded, cynically observant tone, commented upon the images while recording them, Webber’s doesn’t go much beyond the surface. It centers on Griet (Scarlett Johansson, beautiful and quietly touching but emotionally opaque), a young woman from a Catholic family down on its luck in seventeenth-century Deft (the father, a painter, can no longer use his hands), takes a position as a maid in the Vermeer household. The family includes the painter himself, grim and intense (Colin Firth, who lets his long hair make up for his lack of expressiveness); his high-strung, materialistic and suspicious wife Catharina (Essie Davis, who can’t overcome the soapoperatic tones of the character); his rigid, domineering mother-in-law Maria (Judy Parfitt, suitably haughty); his two daughters, one of whom (Alakina Mann, with an appropriately dark gaze) is repressed and potentially hurtful; and a voluble but unsupportive cook-housekeeper (Joanna Scanlan, agreeably unkempt). Griet enters carefully into the moody, seething family, impassive but uncertain, and is drawn hesitantly toward Vermeer’s generally off-limits studio. After completing his latest commission from the sinister, manipulative Van Ruijvan (Tom Wilkinson, a fine actor who’s unusually unsubtle here), Vermeer secretly invites Griet not only to become a virtual assistant, mixing paints for him, but to pose for his next painting–the titular work. She s also wooed by Pieter (Cillian Murphy, looking rather like the young Johnny Depp in one of his more ragged-looking roles), the son of the butcher from whom the family purchases its meat, even while the lustful Van Ruijvan negotiates with the cash-poor Vermeer to have his way with her.
As fashioned by Webber and Serra, the picture’s elegant look consistently delights the senses, but its lack of substance ultimately leaves the viewer feeling comparatively undernourished; except from the elaborate period settings and dress, it’s really not much of an advance over weekday afternoon television dramas. Similarly, it’s easy to admire Johansson’s ethereal loveliness as she floats through the picture, but it has to be admitted that she enigmatically suggests more than she’s ever allowed to express verbally or otherwise. The judgment about Peter Webber’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” has to be that like Vermeer’s original, it’s a beautiful piece; but it fails to offer much more than style and craftsmanship. And so, unlike the painting, it’s unlikely to become an enduring work of art.