While the poignant and often painfully restrained love story between the artist and his subject appears in this movie, the romantic tension becomes secondary to the visual appeal of the movie itself. Director Peter Webber creates an expertly-crafted homage to the work of Vermeer, with some of the most painterly scenes in movie history that resemble Vermeers works and marries painting and film better than any previous film.
The story in Girl With a Pearl Earring revolves around Griet, played by Scarlett Johansson, a beautiful, young girl forced to work as a servant because her father can no longer support her. She finds herself employed at the residence of Johannes Vermeer and his collection of spoiled, overbearing women, which includes his wife, mother-in-law, and daughters. Colin Firth plays the role of Vermeer with the restrained intensity of someone that the outside world cannot touch, for he lives inside his mind.
His performance captures the all-consuming and often tortured mindset of the artist. His quiet intensity and Griets quiet alienation in the house creates a mood that continues to bubble throughout the film. Vermeers mother-in-law continuously pushes him to create commissioned work for the lecherous aristocrat, van Ruijven, played by Tom Wilkinson. Vermeer obviously despises the man and the task, but persists in trying to keep his house in good stead. After Griet is set to cleaning Vermeers studio, her fascination with the painter begins.
She starts to soak up the many different facets of painting, from mixing paint to composition, and Vermeer notices her learning with all his distant intensity. Soon, the painter and his muse begin working together, she mixing his paint and keeping his studio clean, and him educating her on the fine art of painting. While their relationship is misunderstood by all, including maybe themselves, it produces beautiful art. The art of Vermeer is really the main plot of this movie. Throughout the film, director Peter Webber does an amazing job creating the atmosphere of a Johannes Vermeer painting.
Every shot, from the street scenes of Dutch life, to the interior scenes of the Vermeer household, one cannot help but see the resemblance to a Vermeer painting in the way it is lit or how the shot is composed. As stated by New York Times film critic, Elvis Mitchell: the care that has gone into making Earring, a dexterous and absorbing visual re-creation of the lighting and the look that Vermeer achieved in his work, is a tribute to the director Peter Webbers own group of artisans, the cinematographer Eduardo Serra and the production designer Ben van Os (Mitchell).
The movie was subsequently nominated for three Academy Awards for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design for its superior composition (Girl With a Pearl Earring). Because of the expertise of the production staff, it was almost as if Vermeer had directed the movie himself. The tone of movie, and Vermeers general style of painting, is subtle. Vermeers painting has a sober, objective detachment, concerned with physical perfection and the utilization of space. The atmospheric use of light that the painter employs compliments well the lack of drama in his paintings.
However, the lack of drama does little to erode the photographic artistry of the painter, and the film reflects this throughout. The black and white checkered floor of the house reflects the famous pattern seen in such Vermeer work as The Art of Painting. The studio itself is recreated accurately from the many paintings that took place in it. The famous window, featured in many Vermeer paintings, provides not only an interesting hint at the painters lighting preferences, but a glimpse at such an important thing in the history of art.
In The Art of Painting, Officer and Laughing Girl, and Woman with a Water Jug, the gentle light of the window pours over its subjects and creates the understated majesty that lives in all Vermeer paintings. In the film, one scene in particular uses the window as its focal point, as Griet sets upon cleaning it. When Vermeer sees her standing by the light, he is inspired to paint Woman with a Water Jug, and the scene in the movie resembles the painting with uncanny accuracy. Director Webber captures Vermeers style of lighting with the interiors as well as the exteriors.
The painting View of Delft shows many of Vermeers subtle treatments of light and color. As the sunshine filters through the broken clouds, the light falls unevenly over the landscape, varying from the shadowy foreground and the dull red brick buildings through the flame and orange tones in the sunny distance, to the brilliant gleam of the church tower in the distance, with more than half the area of the picture given to the ever-changing Dutch sky, where patches of blue alternate with the silvery and leaden grays of the clouds (Fleming 450).
Scenes of the city in the movie are shot in ways as to reflect this style, as well as scenes in the countryside when Griet and her suitor frolic. The sunlight in these scenes almost washes out much of the action, but contrasts dramatically with the muted city scenes, much like Vermeer managed to do in his individual paintings. The use of chiaroscuro in both the work of Vermeer and the film is subtle yet unforgettable, moving in its restraint and allowing the subjects of each to provide
Few films in the history of cinema have managed to marry subject and form as well as Girl With a Pearl Earring. Besides telling the fascinating story of Vermeer and how he created, the movie does so in a way that it feels as if the viewer is actually observing one of the painters creations. The effect is so significant that it creates a genuineness to the scenes being shown that create the illusion of a time long gone. While there may be movies that are more historically accurate, there are few films as beautiful and as loyal to the subject matter as Girl With a Pearl Earring.
Fleming, William. Arts & Ideas. Ninth Ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995. Mitchell, Elvis. Painting Interiors of the Heart, With Eros in Restrained Hues. The New York Times. 12 Dec 2003. 9 Aug 2008.