20 January 2004 | Chris_Docker
Lyrical perfection if it's the sort of thing that turns you on
Is this an incredibly dull movie about a single painting - or is it a mesmerising and penetrating insight into art and a particular 17th century Dutch artist? It probably depends on your point of view.
Griet is a poor young girl who goes to work for the great Vermeer as a humble servant. She is pushed around emotionally by his overwrought and jealous wife, mischievous children and all-powerful lustful patron. Yet the biggest force in her life, gradually teasing out her own artistic sensibilities, is the Master himself. Griet becomes the subject of his most famous painting, lured by a mixture of dread and fascination.
For Vermeer the artist, his work is all-consuming. Every part of his world the welfare of his family, his eccentricities, his whole energy and purpose in life, is concentrated into his work. That is not to say he lacks morals but simply that his work is his higher calling. To justify such a character, we could look to the role of art and its importance. Art can be worshipped for its own sake, like some wicked effigy, and used to excuse all manner of moral turpitude in its creator; or it can be seen as the entrance by which light can enter our soul, illuminate thought and our world in a way that cold logic alone would deny us, move us beyond the bounds of our immediate impressions and let us see the world about us in a new way, inspired and informed.
Griet carries this seed, to see beauty where others see only common place things, and it is a seed that the Master nourishes. There are times when Vermeer protects Griet from the people around he,r to whom she is so vulnerable, but is his concern towards her concern for her welfare, secret desire, or just a tool, an exquisite tool, of his trade?
Cinema is also being part of this artistic spectrum, if we allow it to be, affecting us in ways that let the viewer grow rather than just be entertained. Girl With a Pearl Earring certainly has sufficient integrity to do that, but if one just wanted to be entertained then it probably falls short. The art direction beautifully recreates Holland of the period and Scarlett Johansson gives a very well-tempered performance as young Griet. Costumes, music and overall cinematography are accomplished and haunting without loss of subtlety, producing a memorable film for lovers of art and cinema; but if paintings don't do anything for you, this film might not either.