Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Judy Parfitt, Essie Davis, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis
Written by: Olivia Hetreed, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier
Directed by: Peter Webber
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content
Running Time: 99
Date: 08/31/2003
IMDB

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Painterly

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If anyone has the face of a modern woman, Scarlett Johansson does. When we think of her in her two best roles so far, as Rebecca in Ghost World and as Charlotte in Lost in Translation, we see the ultimate 21st century girl. Her throaty voice, her pouty lips and the world-weariness and uncertainty behind her eyes scream contemporary. She's as part of her time as Brigitte Bardot or Jane Fonda were of theirs.

And so sitting down to the new film Girl with a Pearl Earring takes a little suspension of disbelief. In it, Johansson plays Griet, a girl living in 1665 Holland who must go to work to support her injured father and their family. She lands a job as a maid in the home of painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). The poor peasant girl carries herself rigidly, making quick, nervous little movements -- such as the minute curtsey she makes whenever anyone addresses her. But when she enters Vermeer's study for the first time and happens upon one of his paintings, the sudden gasp that escapes her body is entirely involuntary. She's the only person in the house who understands the great painter and his works.

In one scene, she painfully approaches her employers and -- with great effort -- manages to ask whether she should clean the windows in Vermeer's study. No one else understands how clean windows would change the quality of light that splashes on the painter's models. After a series of awkward 17th century-type confrontations involving Vermeer's mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), his wife (Essie Davis) and his benefactor (Tom Wilkinson), Griet becomes the subject of Vermeer's most famous and beloved painting, the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Director Peter Webber, who makes his feature debut here after a series of TV movies, handles this climactic scene with the utmost grace and sincerity; he creates such a sustained moment of such beauty and silence that you may forget to breathe. Johansson perfectly captures the mysterious, thoughtful, longing, confused gaze of the original subject. And, yes, even with her modern face Johansson literally becomes that girl in the painting. Webber greatly surpasses Merchant and Ivory and all the other half-baked filmmakers who love to dabble in the grand elegance and eloquence of period pieces. He and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed understand the different rhythms of this time and place; they convey the mood without much talk or explanation.

People didn't talk about their feelings back then, and every line drips with double meanings. Time moves slowly, single moments stand still for hours and the people move with it. These characters aren't aware of a modern audience at all.

Extra credit goes to the screenplay for revealing Vermeer's use of refracting lenses to trace his subjects, a controversial topic also raised in this year's excellent documentary David Hockney: Secret Knowledge. As with Lost in Translation, Johansson's performance connects with the audience on a purely primal level; she offers life to those who have forgotten all about it. Wilkinson's character wishes to possess her sexually, but Vermeer understands that it's her spirit -- and not her body -- that really matters.

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