Nothing drains the life from great art like a well-intentioned attempt to explain away its mysteries. Is anyone’s appreciation for Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring augmented by novelist Tracy Chevalier’s speculation that the subject is a 16-year-old maid named Griet? It’s an urbane take on the Reader’s Digest articles (“I am Jack’s medulla oblongata”) spoofed by Fight Club (1999).
Unfortunately, Peter Webber’s torpid Girl with a Pearl Earring chafes with “respect” for its source, squandering potentially engaging storylines and wasting talented actors. The film keeps Vermeer (Colin Firth) offstage for most of the first half-hour, focusing instead on Griet (Scarlett Johansson). Though her tribulations are supposed to provide ironic contrast with her eventual immortalization, the idea is submerged in a later, predictable development: the portrait represents the sublimation of a passion thwarted by differences in age and class.
Vermeer’s attraction to Griet inspires him to burden her with the responsibility of mixing his paints, as if she doesn’t have enough to do (the poor girl makes Dickens protagonists look like hopeless layabouts). “Sir, I haven’t time,” she says. “Make time,” he replies. What begins nicely with an understated shot of Griet’s coarsened hands grinding boneblack takes a turn for the worse as the scene references Ghost‘s infamous pottery scene; it’s enough to set the artist-muse prestige picture genre back 10 years. Fans awaiting a Manet biopic starring Demi Moore as Berthe Morisot should exhale when they start seeing spots.
But Manet married his muse, an alternative unavailable to Vermeer, dissatisfied though he may be with his wife, Catharina (Essie Davis). Though Girl suggests that his interest in the maid begins because does not consider his wife a suitable subject for his art, this intriguing theory is buried beneath Catharina’s function as a means to score easy points against the class system, circa 1665.
The artist’s desires and self-understanding are similarly undeveloped. Just because he discusses his art with Griet (and Firth gazes at Johannson soulfully through the tangle of his Jesus wig) doesn’t make his lust for her any less exploitative. Shtupping the servants — even if you’re a struggling artist trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage — involves far more complex manipulations of power than the filmmakers are willing to acknowledge.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Catherina’s mother, Maria (Judy Parfitt), and not Vermeer, governs the household. A painstaking craftsman who neither sells enough canvasses nor makes a sufficient supplemental income through his sideline as an art dealer — common practice in Delft during this period — Vermeer is forced to move his family into Maria’s home. Dressed in a cap and robes reminiscent of Braveheart‘s inquisitor, she manages the artist’s commissions and frets about their lack of income.
She takes to this role with a dour forcefulness. Indeed, Vermeer’s patron, van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), observes that she “could sell sour milk to cows.” When van Ruijven, a crude man with a reputation for having his way with the artist’s models, commissions Griet’s portrait, Maria reasons that the family needs the money, but her interest is not purely financial. Well aware of her daughter’s objections, Maria not only permits but also arranges the modeling session, going so far as to loan the maid Catherina’s earrings.
Her consent to this deceit is unexpected, but it is consistent with the film’s general lack of character development. Granted, their collective inability to relate to one another is part of the point, but all their staring, sighing, and yearning reduce financial and marital strife to a level of irritation somewhere between “hangnail” and “arriving on the subway platform just as the train departs the station.” Wilkinson, at least, seems aware of how desperately this picture requires some jazzing up: Little Richard would have a hard time making van Ruijven’s description of mixing paint (“grinding and stirring”) sound filthier than Wilkinson’s reading.
In a serious miscalculation, the film’s picturesque appearance further undercuts its social, emotional, and artistic disorders. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra lights and frames many shots in the manner of Vermeer, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, rendering the technique superficial. Most of these compositions show the artist’s studio. Sometimes the editing patterns suggest that we are seeing things as Vermeer does. At other times, the painter himself appears within the image. And at others, he’s not even in the room, as in the case of a high-angle shot of Griet waking in the studio — after her pallet has been relocated there at her master’s insistence — indicating that Webber has either forgotten or does not care that nearly all of Vermeer’s 35 surviving works depict an eye-level perspective. This is especially disquieting considering the meticulous reconstruction of his studio and accurate dramatization of his working methods, as represented by his famous The Art of Painting.
For the most part, Girl with a Pearl Earring fails to display an understanding of art as anything more sophisticated than pretty pictures or means to relieve sexual frustration. But when Griet finally sits for her portrait, Maria warns her of the painter’s insidious power to draw all around him into “his world.” As the portentous line doesn’t describe the Vermeer we’ve seen thus far, perhaps it’s suggesting something about the toll the artist’s sensibility takes on others. Again, it’s an intriguing theme left unexplored.
The film’s focus on Griet indicates that the line might describe her relationship with Vermeer, rather than an expression of his personal metaphysics. Nevertheless, everyone but van Ruijven finds him- or herself worse off at the end of the picture. The Vermeers’ marriage is a shambles, the family wants for income, and Griet has lost not only her position but also her reputation. Patrons are not the only ones who pay for art.