Girl with a Pearl Earring

Character piece that's understated to the point of nothing actually happening.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 19 Jan 2004 by Scott Morris
Girl with a Pearl Earring image

Girl with a Pearl Earring is, at it's heart, primarily a mood piece. It's to my severe displeasure that it consummately fails to generate this mood, which leaves the film rather aimless and utterly un-noteworthy. It would be remiss of me not to point out this view flies in the face of not only the majority of critical opinion but also the BAFTA selection panel who lavished ten nominations on this. However, it's not the first time we've stood alone as the only people willing to tell you the truth and it's unlikely to be the last time.

Set in a well realised 1600's Holland, Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is a comely young wench taken into the Vermeer household as a maid. Vermeer is one of the premier artists to wield an easel, producing the kind of gorgeous, realistic pictures that essentially became obsoleted by cameras. Quickly Vermeer takes an interest in Griet, especially as she shows an interest in art that Vermeer's wife does not share. After what would be nice to imagine as a tense, rising libido filled relationship involving, well, essentially Griet mixing Vermeer's paints (in a literal sense, not as part of some twisted double entendre) she ends up modelling for a painting at the behest of sleazy patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson).

It would be nice to say that this is a distilled summary that can't possibly encapsulate the tension, lust and exhilaration of the piece, but unfortunately there's as much excitement to be had from Griet and Vermeer's longing as there is in watching one of his paintings dry. How this came to pass is perhaps the only interesting thing to come out of an otherwise wasted two hours.

Girl with a Pearl Earring image

Scarlett Johansson is tipped by anyone who's anyone as the next huge star, and the performance here will do no harm at all to a reputation bolstered by her fine performance in Lost In Translation. She does everything the script calls for, especially difficult in a movie where the dialogue tends to be of little consequence. The story unfolds largely through various intense glares and knowing glances, all hints and no confirmations. She does as well as it's possible to imagine anyone doing, so there's one thing that would normally contribute towards a decent film.

Colin Firth is almost exclusively used in dithering posh Englishman / Hugh Grant surrogate roles, and it's a rare treat to see him actually act on the big screen. Again, he does some outstanding ocular acting as he smoulders around with piercing eyes and a desire that bubbles just under the surface. It's perhaps his finest performance. This, coupled with more than able support from Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt and Cillian Murphy as Griet's almost entirely superfluous suitor Pieter are all more things that would normally contribute towards a decent film.

The production values are utterly fantastic. The costume department and the set dressers are deserving of major plaudits and have produced a believable and authentic looking replica of seventeenth century Holland, at least as far as my admittedly limited knowledge of the subject goes. Certain shots chosen by feature debut director Peter Webber look good enough to frame and hang alongside Vermeer's original works. This would normally contribute towards a decent film.

Now complete, Griet rails against her creator in perhaps the most shockingly violent scene committed to celluloid.

On the surface that's quite a lot to recommend it. It's a shame that none of it hangs together well at all, the composition flawed. Individually Firth and Johansson are great but rarely seem like they're acting on the same page and there's absolutely no spark or fire in their relationship. Their only chemistry comes from the lessons Vermeer gives Griet on the origins of his paints. In this primary aspect Girl with a Pearl Earring fails, and it has absolutely nothing in the way of a backup plan to fall back on. It desperately tries to invite you into the claustrophobic atmosphere of a forbidden upstairs / downstairs relationship but the ways is barred but everything being so desperately, desperately dull

If, like us, you aren't swept away by it's non-existent mood there's just nothing else to recommend it in a film where absolutely nothing happens. While we weren't expecting anyone to dive backwards over tables firing two handguns wildly ala Hard Boiled it's rare that there's a film with so little happening that we're forced to either translate it into Canadian, add an internal soundtrack by Eddie Grant or simply fall asleep just to survive the tedium till the conclusion, but that's what happened here.

This film has been unanimously condemned by theOneliner editorial staff as 'really boring'. Watch at your own risk. The above laudable points mean it rises above the one-star status that something so chock-full of tedium would normally warrant, but this is done grudgingly and should not be interpreted as a recommendation. Perhaps this would have been better if Griet was a robot from the future came back in time to kill Vermeer for some reason. Hmm, might have to patent that idea.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.

Peter Webber
Cast list:
Colin Firth (Vermeer)
Scarlett Johansson (Griet)
Tom Wilkinson (Van Ruijven)
Judy Parfitt (Maria Thins)
Cillian Murphy (Pieter)
Essie Davis (Catharina)
Joanna Scanlan (Tanneke)
Alakina Mann (Cornelia)