Girl with a Pearl Earring
Directed by Peter Webber
Written by Olivia Hetreed from the novel by Tracy Chevalier
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth


Girl with a Pearl Earring

Since that crucial year 1927 we've learned that films, for the most part, are moved by dialogue. People speak to each other, say things that lead to other things - emotions, actions, even just thoughts - and those in turn lead us, along with the characters on screen, to a resolution. Of relationships, of conflicts, of the film. But "Girl with a Pearl Earring" has deliberately chosen to do without words, to try and make its point by allowing us to view silence in silence; that is, to observe from our theatre seats the silence that screenwriter Olivia Hetreed (working from Tracy Chevalier's novel) and director Peter Webber have imposed on the household of Johannes Vermeer in the year 1665. Unhappily this was a terrible mistake, and it changes what should have been a fascinating moment in time, and what could have been a compelling double portrait, into a superficial glance that teaches us nothing and runs from insight.

1665 was the year, as close as can be determined today, in which Vermeer painted his enigmatic "Girl with a Pearl Earring." No one knows who his model was, nor much more about Vermeer himself, for that matter. So Chevalier created a household and a servant girl named Griet, who became the model.

For the film, Scarlett Johansson is Griet and Colin Firth is Vermeer. And surely no one could be more luscious than Johansson nor more darkly enigmatic than Firth; if only they would speak. To each other, to themselves, to anyone. In the film Griet speaks only when spoken to, and Vermeer - well, Vermeer labors in silence for what seems hours before he can bring forth a sentence, and it is usually of three words or less. There is tension in the household; his patron, the slimy Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who must be catered to at all costs, finds Griet worth pawing. Vermeer's imperious mother-in-law Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt) runs the house with an iron fist. And his wife Catharina (Essie Davis), whom he keeps pregnant, is enraged and jealous of Griet.

All of which would work if we had something to watch. The problem is that there is no life in the house, other than what the camera decides to see and focus on. We have no sense that there are human beings interacting with each other, except when the camera is on them. What do they do the rest of the time? We will never know, because the answer is, probably nothing. It is a shame that so little thought was put into giving these people a life.

I have another quarrel with the film: In the interest of period authenticity Mr. Webber and his cinematographer have underlit the entire film, so that, for example, sunlight never enters the house; darkness surrounds the single candles or small candelabras in every room. We can barely make out who's where in the frame. But in reality our eyes are much more adaptable than motion picture film stock, so that what looks black on film would be much brighter - and more visible - to our own eyes. By attempting to be faithful to the era, Webber has falsified the reality. It becomes painful to watch.