The mystery behind Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 painting
“Girl With A Pearl Earring” inspired Tracy Chevalier
to write her book of the same name. That same mysteriousness has quietly
sneaked on screen with this year’s cinematic version.
Griet (Johansson) is a girl in her late teens who has been
hired as a maid in the Vermeer household. Though originally slated
to attend to the mistress Catharina (Davis) and to lighten
the load of existing maid Tanneke (Scanlan), Griet’s
perception and artful eye is noticed by the master and painter Vermeer
(Firth), who begins to depend on her assistance in his studio.
Overlaid on this simple story are various relationship tensions that
emerge when Griet arrives at the Vermeer home. Wife Catharina is not
thrilled about having a young pretty face in her home; daughter Cornelia
(Mann) wishes to cause trouble for the new maid; the butcher’s
son Pieter (Murphy) begins to notice Griet; and then there
is the quiet, necessarily secret kinship between Vermeer and Griet.
Chevalier’s novel, written in first person from Griet’s
perspective, easily demonstrates Griet’s sensitivity with the
use of mental monologues. Transferring this quality to a third-person
movie is more difficult, and many of Griet’s thoughts are spoken
aloud or even given to others to verbalize. It helps the audience
understand what’s going on, but detracts from the uniqueness
of Griet’s character. Instead of intuitively knowing that she
must clean the painter’s studio carefully without moving anything
Vermeer is painting, she is commanded to “move nothing”
Some of Griet’s intelligence is salvaged by Scarlett Johansson,
who always seems to add a sense of maturity to whomever she plays.
Johannes Vermeer, played by Colin Firth, is a much more dramatic man
in the movie than the obscure figure of the novel. He is more forward
with his partiality toward Griet, and has a volatile temper that flares
up whenever she’s in trouble.
Major events from the novel come to life on screen, and those who
have read the book will easily recognize them. However, the details
of these events are fudged, and the timeline is jumbled. Furthermore,
because we don’t have Griet’s thoughts to explain these
events to us, they are either too straightforward through the now-voiced
dialogue, or remain a mystery to audiences who have not read the book.
The advantage of a visual medium for this story is that this is,
after all, a movie about a painter, and we can see the progression
of the paintings for ourselves. We see the light from the window illuminate
Griet’s face as she cleans the glass panes, and understand how
she becomes Vermeer’s inspiration for a new painting. We see
the undertones of the painting being carefully laid down by the artist’s
brush, and we see the careful mixing of the paints.
The film itself is shot in muted colors, representing the dull gray
life of Delft, Holland, in 1665. It is a lifestyle of loneliness and
confusion for a girl like Griet, and it’s easy to see why she
becomes so attracted to the colors of the paint, as well as the master
of those colors.