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A pearl of beauty

'Girl With a Pearl Earring' may lack dramatic subtlety, but its sheer visual appeal is a great achievement.

December 12, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It's not till the very end of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" that we get to see the actual 17th century Johannes Vermeer painting that inspired both Tracy Chevalier's bestselling novel and this film adaptation -- and that is as it should be.

For it is a measure of how convincingly book and film have conveyed the author's compelling notions of this masterpiece's back story, the imaginative re-creation of how this particular painting came to be, that when we finally see it we can't help but feel that we understand the art with a depth and richness of knowledge we have not had before.

We feel we're seeing, so to speak, beyond the canvas to the human story that the author imagined when she wrote the novel to answer the question, "What did Vermeer do to her to make her look like that, happy and sad at the same time?"

Though the screen version of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is not in the same class as the painting, the success it has in being both convincing and involving is paradoxical two times over. While Chevalier's quietly and persuasively written book was a feat of language in the service of literary imagination, the film's virtues are almost completely visual. And those visuals are so impressive and overpowering that they largely make up for the fact that the book's delicate story has been somewhat standardized into a tale that lacks the subtlety and grace that made the novel so involving.

As envisioned by director Peter Webber, production-designed by the veteran Ben van Os ("Orlando" and the work of Peter Greenaway) and gorgeously photographed by Eduardo Serra (Oscar nominated for "The Wings of the Dove"), "Girl" is so beautifully rendered it truly seems painted with light.

Set in Delft, Holland, in the late 1660s, "Girl" is a gratifyingly tactile movie, concerned with surfaces, objects and the wonder of seeing. As befits the story of a man whose eyes, a character in the novel says, "are worth a room full of gold," it offers an impeccable re-creation of the ambience of that time, taking us from bustling outdoor markets to cramped, candlelit interiors to the crystalline light of the painter's studio. It's almost as if the filmmakers wanted to shoot in Vermeer-influenced light, wanted to suggest he painted the way he did because that's the way the world looked to him. And now, thanks to these visual wonders, to us.

Aside from its look, "Girl's" other great asset is actress Scarlett Johansson as Griet, Vermeer's 17-year-old model and inspiration. With this period role following right behind "Lost in Translation's" ultramodern girl, Johansson underlines her great ability to fit in everywhere, no matter what the setting or era.

Johansson has to do much more than remarkably resemble the girl in the painting (which she does). Though Chevalier's book takes place mostly inside Griet's head, the film has wisely avoided voice-over, so it falls to Johansson and her gift for showing feelings without words, for looking bland, inquisitive or furious as the situation demands, to convey the panoply of emotions she is experiencing.

Griet is introduced at a low point in her young life. Her father, a tile painter, has been blinded in an accident, and the family finances demand that she take a job, specifically as a maid in the house of the celebrated painter Vermeer (Colin Firth).

With Vermeer's wife exhausted and ill-humored from a constant stream of children, the other servants suspicious and the children an irritant, no one in the house is happy to see Griet. A flirtation with Pieter (Cillian Murphy), the local butcher's son, might have provided some diversion if Griet were that kind of girl, but she is not.

The power in the establishment is in the hands of the artist's shrewd mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt). Though the film doesn't make this clear, Griet was specifically hired to clean Vermeer's studio so that no object be disturbed. She's immediately transfixed by the sacred nature of that space, by the painter's work and, very soon, by the painter himself.

What "Girl" does well, perhaps because of Webber's background as a maker of documentaries, is illustrate Griet's increasing involvement with the physical details of painting. She's fascinated -- and so are we -- as Vermeer explains his technique, shows her how colors are made, even introduces her to the wonders of the camera obscura. Griet enjoys being Vermeer's chaste apprentice/accomplice, until the possibility of her being a model brings the pressures of her place in the painter's household to a boil and points up difficulties in the story as filmed.

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