Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Girl With a Pearl Earring – Wake Me When We Get to the Exciting Part

Written by Tracy Chevalier and Olivia Hetreed
Directed by Peter Webber

There are all sorts of hidden dangers when crafting a movie based on a book. There are issues with some scenes not translating to the big screen and those who read the book will usually be the first to point out what’s missing. When both the book and movie are also based on actual events, there is a sort of double jeopardy. My feeling has always been that if the movie manages to create an interest in looking up actual events, then it can be excused for taking liberties with history.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is a film based on a book by the same name. The book was, in turn, inspired by the painting of the same name which was the work of 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer was a moderately successful artist whose most noted paintings are those of women in a domestic setting. The painting which inspired this book is perhaps his most well-known.

Griet (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) is a young woman of Calvinist parents who is sent to work as a maid in the Vermeer household. She is somewhat uncomfortable in the household of this Roman Catholic family with an abundance of children and little space. Although it would seem that they are well off, that is an illusion. Johannes Vermeer (portrayed by Colin Firth) is something of a tortured artist whose moods sometimes leave him idle for long periods. Meanwhile, his wife, Catharina (portrayed by Essie Davis) enjoys a more lavish lifestyle than he can provide for her, especially as more mouths to feed are added to the household.

It is obvious how uncomfortable Griet is in this setting. Most of the time, she seems to want to blend into the background and not be noticed. Her only outlet for a time are the trips to the market where she is pursued by the butcher’s son, Pieter (portrayed by Cillian Murphy).

When Griet is assigned to clean Vermeer’s studio, things change. First Vermeer sees her in a pose that will inspire his next work, although he uses a different model. However, Griet does see things from an artist’s viewpoint. She notices angles and lighting like no one else. Vermeer picks up on this and soon had her clandestinely performing errands for him as well as helping him out in the studio.

Vermeer’s mother-in-law, Maria (portrayed by Judy Parfitt) is aware of the time Griet is spending with Vermeer, but also thankful because it seems to be keeping him painting and out of his dark mood. Although their relationship is not sexual, it’s never clear whether Maria believes this or is just willing to look the other way for the financial benefits it brings.

When Vermeer’s patron, the wealthy Van Ruijven (portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) also takes notice of Griet, the tension is ratcheted up. Vermeer was able to protect Griet from suspicion when his eldest daughter attempted to set her up for stealing a hair-comb, but there is little he can do in the face of the man who is essentially supporting the household. Van Ruijven’s demands for a painting of himself with Griet end up bringing all that is simmering to the surface.

I found Girl With a Pearl Earring to be terribly predictable. I knew early on that Scarlett Johanssen’s character would attract the painter. That was a no-brainer. The tension is most definitely there although the two never act on it, and he actually serves as more of her mentor. In turn, he has found a confidant with whom he can share his love of painting; someone who sees things the way he does and understands him. His wife is more interested in preening herself and doesn’t seem to show any interest in what her husband does. This aspect of their relationship would seem to be supported by the historical accuracy that Johannes Vermeer did marry into a household that was wealthier than his position would have warranted. Catharina does seem to be somewhat spoiled and self-involved. Even one of the maids remarks at one point that the worst year financially was the one where Catharina had to sell some of her jewels.

I’m not sure how to rate the acting. The problem is while the story could have been quite good, so much is done without words being said that the movie seems to plod along. I don’t need a lot of action, but other than the scenes where Van Ruijven is in the picture, for the most part, Girl With a Pearl Earring is lackluster. Scarlett Johansson seems to want to spend most of her time hiding in the background. Essie Davis preens and periodically throws fits when something isn’t going her way. Judy Parfitt quietly undermines her daughter for the sake of money. Colin Firth broods and doesn’t say much. Only Tom Wilkinson is given a role that seems grandiose and demonstrative, and the viewer isn’t supposed to care for him. That I was thankful every time he made an appearance because it brought the movie out of the doldrums is a statement of how a director can so underplay a story that it suffers.

The period look for the most part is good. I like how the lighting was used, both in Vermeer’s studio and in the house itself. The clothing is also handled well, as is the setting in the house of how people like this family would have lived. My one comment would be how all of the women look so pasty and white. Was there a reason for it? Or was it merely the look of the film the Director and others were going for? If it’s the look of the film, it’s awful.

Girl With a Pearl Earring had a good story that could have been told much better. I kept thinking I was going to fall asleep while I was watching it. Just the story of Griet and what her place is during this time period despite her being capable of much more could be a compelling story, but it never seems to take off at all. I was disappointed overall, despite the fact that it did inspire me to learn more about the subject matter.


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