Girl With a Pearl Earring is set in the past, involves real historical figures, and includes extended stretches where people stare longingly at each other, trembling, without saying a word. It’s about art. But that doesn’t make it art.
Comedian Eddie Izzard once did a bit parodying Merchant Ivory-style period dramas, the kind that have titles like A Room With a View of a House by a Lake. His sly suggestion was that stammering deliveries and repressed characters aren’t inherently the stuff of compellingly-constructed narrative. The long dead spaces, instead of indicating depth, could simply indicate a movie without much to say. Sometimes, less is ... well, just less.
Such is the case in Girl With a Pearl Earring, a draggy piece of speculative fiction that combines sidelong glances and Scarlett Johansson’s quivering lips with ham-fisted symbolism. Johansson plays Griet, a young Puritan girl in 1665 Holland. Forced to take a job when her father loses his sight, Griet lands a maid position in the household of the celebrated painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth).
She’s a simple girl, but she knows beauty when she sees it, and she instantly becomes fascinated with her employer’s work. He, in turn, becomes fascinated with Griet and decides to turn her into one of his models, much to the consternation of Vermeer’s jealous, high-strung wife Catharina (Essie Davis). Griet, meanwhile, also entertains the affections of a butcher’s son (Cillian Murphy), who’s a good guy and all, but let’s face it, he’s no studly, brooding Dutch master who’ll hold your hand while teaching you to mix paint colors.
The film—based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel—takes its title from one of Vermeer’s great paintings, positing that Griet was the subject. Writers love exploring other artists’ inspiration for their works, and Girl With a Pearl Earring plays like a slightly less famous variation on asking what Mona Lisa was smiling about.
The answer offered here, as adapted by screenwriter Olivia Hetreed and first-time feature director Peter Webber, is that the face in Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring is an innocent undergoing a sensual/sexual awakening. Johansson creeps cautiously through nearly every frame of the film, her head bobbing like some anxious bird unsure whether or not to sample the crumbs in front of her. She signifies exploration by widening her eyes, hesitancy by tucking her head into her shoulders, anxiety by holding herself tightly together. It’s not just that the dearth of dialogue forces Johansson to give a physical performance; it’s that Webber apparently gave her an emotion-to-gesture conversion chart before principal photography began.
Johansson’s subtly unsubtle body language provides just the most obvious example of how Webber is trying to make a mountain of significance out of a molehill of content. When he wants to show Griet standing at a crossroads in her life, he shoots her standing literally in the middle of a faded directional marker, with arrows pointing in all directions. This is not a man who trusts a theme without underlining it.
What he’s really got on his hands here is one of those soft-core coming-of-age fantasies that gives respectable moviegoers permission to watch virginal humping because the people involved are wearing 17th-century costumes. There’s plenty of drawing room melodrama along the way—much of it involving the precarious finances of an artist only willing to draw when moved by his muse—but if you think that the payoff here is Griet’s education in art, rather than in whether or not Vermeer’s going to get into her skirts, you’re kidding yourself. In case you missed the point, Webber makes a very serious scene out of Vermeer piercing Griet’s ear, drawing blood, the girl crying out in a combination of pain and pleasure. Mr. Webber, put down the metaphors and step away slowly.
Thank heaven for Tom Wilkinson, who shows up periodically as Vermeer’s randy patron Van Ruijven to add a spark of life to the proceedings. He at least appears interested in giving life to a character, instead of spending 95 minutes on ponderous PG-13 art porn. It’s silly stuff when it overplays every bit of subtext, and sometimes sillier still when it underplays everything else. Girl With a Pearl Earring doesn’t bring us an inch closer to Vermeer or his mysterious model, leaving them stranded in a room with a view of a house by a lake.GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, **, Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Rated PG-13