`Girl With a Pearl Earring' is far from being a masterpiece

January 30, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Scarlett Johansson's distinctively laid-back and inertia-ridden relationship to the camera suggests unknowable depths. When she has a director who knows how to aim a floodlight at them, as Terry Zwigoff did in Ghost World, she can be sensational. But in Girl With a Pearl Earring, even more than in the overrated and lethargic Lost in Translation, she's used for her ability to conjure an aura rather than her skill at revealing character.

First-time feature director Peter Webber obviously picked her to play Griet, a maid in the home of Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth), to suggest the ambiguities of Vermeer's 1665 masterpiece Girl With a Pearl Earring. As in Tracy Chevalier's novel of the same name, Griet serves as Vermeer's muse and model while his oft-pregnant wife (Essie Davis) grows jealous.

Olivia Hetreed's script strips the novel of its involving first-person storytelling. What's lost is the excitement of a perceptive girl processing an alien environment and using her wits to find her footing in an unusual clan, complete with Vermeer's regal mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) and roistering children, including a destructive daughter (Alakina Mann).

The stream of revelations filling out the culture shock of moving from an austere, tight-knit Protestant home to a Catholic household trickles down to a few odd details; the portrait of Griet's family comes to nothing. The movie gets so genteelly claustrophobic that one begins to long for the scurvy presence of Vermeer's patron (Tom Wilkinson), a manipulative lecher with a thigh-deep purse.

Jealous of the bond that Griet shares with the painter as she cleans his studio and helps him grind his paints and organize his compositions, the patron commissions Vermeer to paint a portrait of her. For Vermeer, the result is a masterpiece. But all director Webber gets out of it is a mood piece about the erotics of creating art, rendered in color and light, not flesh and blood. Vermeer's gaze awakens Griet's own natural aesthetic sense, and when he trains his eye on her, she feels as if he's seeing through her modesty. (When she gets worked up, the sexual overflow drives her into the embrace of a butcher's son.)

The movie doesn't flow with this sensual surge; it freezes it, frame by frame, for our delectation. Girl With a Pearl Earring in many ways deserves its Academy Award nominations for Eduardo Serra's cinematography, Ben van Os' production design, and Dien van Straalen's costumes. Still, they're applying craftsmanlike skills to ape the work of an artist.

When Firth's Vermeer puts Johansson into the exact form of the girl in the painted Girl With a Pearl Earring, it's breathtaking only for a moment. The mingling of sensuality and subterranean emotion that makes the painting special just isn't there. As Louise Lasser kept saying in Bananas after making love to Woody Allen, "There's something missing."

Webber's film offers painstaking reproductions of the town of Delft circa 1665 in all four seasons. That's just the problem: you feel every pain he took. Girl With a Pearl Earring is an art movie in the worst way.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Peter Webber

Rated PG-13

Released by Lions Gate

Time 101 minutes

Sun Score **

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