GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING directed by Peter Webber (2003)

girl-with-a-pearl-earring-scarlett-johansson-15469105-1470-1050I read and admired Tracy Chevalier’s novel when it was first published in 1999 but was never strongly drawn to the movie adaptation.

I had serious misgivings about the cast and a few lukewarm reviews put me off too. Surely Scarlett Johansson was too sexy to play the young girl and Colin Firth too English to play Vermeer.

Having finally got round to seeing it on DVD, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the skilled way Peter Webber captured the detail and atmosphere of painter’s household in 17th century Delft and of how faithful he was to the novel. This is all the more impressive as it was the British director’s debut feature film.

Chevalier’s book works both as an examination of Vermeer’s meticulous pictures made of light and as a sympathetic study of the plight of women who  were resigned to a hard life of servitude while being at the mercy of their randy masters.

Firth ogles her like a ravenous wolf hound waiting for the moment to pounce. Tom Wilkinson as Vermeer’s patron Van Ruijven is less reticent and makes his move while she’s hanging out the washing. By strength of will and good fortune Griet manages to avoid becoming a ruined maid and finds love among her peers by winning the heart of butcher’s boy Pieter (Cillian Murphy) but not before she has become the subject of Vermeer’s portrait.

A good likeness – Vermeer’s 1665 painting and Scarlett Johnansson’s update.

Johansson as Griet has the scrubbed and pasty look of a young nun but still manages to look stunning and convince you that she would arouse lustful thoughts. Her resemblance to the girl in Vermeer’s portrait is uncanny.

The story of a servant with a pearl earring and a moody Dutch painter obviously offers less scope for action than a murder mystery so those who criticise the movie for being slow-moving are missing the point.

This is not a plot driven thriller but a detailed character study, and a very good one at that. It works by creating an intense and claustrophobic world within a world. There are no bodice ripping scenes but the sexual tension is ever-present – when Vermeer makes Griet lick her lips not once, not twice but three times this is more sexually charged than any explicit romp among the easels would have been.