Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)
Directed by Peter Webber

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earring gives a fictional account of the girl depicted in Vermeer's painting of the same title. In the movie, this girl, who has been named Griet (Scarlett Johansson), is a servant in the Vermeer household who catches the fancy of the artist (Colin Firth). He paints her portrait, and she attends to her duties in his household, interacting with him and the various members of his family.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring is a remarkably attractive and visually distinctive film. By paying meticulous attention to lighting, framing, furnishings, garments, household items, and food, as is so often the case in Seventeenth Century Dutch painting, Webber goes beyond mere historical fidelity and successfully evokes the visual qualities of Vermeer's paintings in virtually every scene of his movie. The effect he so achieves is consistently fascinating and is one of the film's most enticing qualities.


Its virtues are not, however, exhausted by its visual appeal. Griet's relationship with Vermeer is also well handled. There is tension between them, but Webber avoids the usual clichés and manages to infuse that tension with a sense of both veracity and tenderness. Instead of a smoldering romance, the viewer is treated to awkward and, consequently, affecting moments between two persons for whom a real relationship is impossible. In fact, we are left with the impression that such a relationship is never even really contemplated. We see a mutual infatuation, but one that will never be acted upon.

Griet's interactions with the Vermeer family and its other servants provide a backdrop against which the girl's relationship with the painter plays out, and the former are as intriguing as is the latter. Moreover, it is only by showing the viewer this complex, hierarchical world, by making him aware of its realities, that Webber is able to arouse in the moviegoer the tensions felt by Griet and Vermeer. Without this backdrop, the difficulties that prevent a romantic liaison between them would not have been present, and the director would not have been able to evoke in the viewer the sentiments of unrequited love.

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Even the way in which the painting that inspired the film is briefly introduced assists in the production of an emotional response to the movie in the viewer. By linking the beautiful, enigmatic girl of Vermeer's painting to the enigmatic Griet, the character is so universalized as to enhance the potency of the emotions aroused by the film.

Lastly, I should note that while Girl with a Pearl Earring is generally well acted, it is Scarlett Johansson who really distinguishes herself. Her portrayal of Griet is wonderfully subtle. She does not give way to excesses of emotion, which often seem to be understood as good acting, nor does she take the character beyond the age and society in which she is situated. By so restraining herself, Ms Johansson gives Griet an emotional depth she could not otherwise have had.


Webber's leisurely, carefully crafted film never attains real greatness, but it is pleasant and well made. The director shows the viewer a hopeless relationship and evokes for him the emotions attendant upon it.

Review by Keith Allen

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