20 July 2004 | Buddy-51
visually stunning, though lacking in dramatic intensity
Behind every picture there lies a story, and the film `Girl With a Pearl Earring' purports to give us the inside scoop into the making of Vermeer's classic painting of the same name. In the mid 1600's, a young, illiterate peasant girl named Griet came to live and work as a servant in the home of the promising, yet still financially struggling, Dutch master. Obsessed by her beauty, Vermeer insisted on using her as the subject for one of his works, much to the horror and chagrin of his jealous and shrewish wife. Despite the domestic havoc it caused, the collaboration between artist and subject resulted in one of the genuine masterpieces of the art world.
Visually, this film could not be more stunning. Thanks to luminous cinematography, art direction and costume design, the audience watching this film feels almost as if it has been transported into a Vermeer work. Director Peter Webber recreates every element of that world in loving detail, right down to his choice of actress Scarlett Johansson, who is a dead ringer for the model in the original portrait. Alexandre Desplat's score also captures the lyrical, haunting tenderness of the subject matter.
`Girl With a Pearl Earring' is a very fine movie in many respects, but it is ultimately unsatisfying because it cannot match in content what it achieves in style. Despite the exquisite look of the film, the characters seem strangely underdeveloped, most especially Vermeer himself, who remains frustratingly superficial throughout. Thanks mainly to his taciturn moodiness, we never get to know much of what he is thinking or feeling. The romantic moments between artist and subject are admirably restrained and thereby all the more erotic in nature but we do feel as if we would like to know more about him as a person. Griet is only slightly more fully developed, although, in her case, we can at least ascribe this lack of information to the restrictions placed on her by her station in life and the society of her time. Unlike Vermeer, Griet was conditioned by the world around her to be a passive observer. But Vermeer needs to be a more dynamic presence in the story.
One admires the fact that the filmmakers have remained truthful to the spirit of the enterprise, refusing to indulge in cheap melodramatics to make the story more salacious and scandalous than in truth it really was. Yet, in dramatic terms, such integrity comes with a price, for the film often has the effect of lulling rather than stimulating us, of raising our expectations then failing to fully satisfy them. Perhaps, in the case of this particular artwork, the story-behind-the-picture wasn't really all that interesting to begin with.