Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) Directed by Peter Webber. With Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Essie Davis, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt and Cillian Murphy.
Based on a novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a period drama about a young peasant girl (Scarlett Johansson) living and working in the year 1665 for the household of the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Directed by Peter Webber, the film was recognised with a host of prestigious award nominations across all major categories.
For starters, it is beautifully shot. A central theme is colour and light, and through beautifully composed cinematography by Eduardo Serra, the film at times has the distinct sense of an old, faded painting. The dialogue is sparse and many of the characters are in some way at odds with themselves – dealing with repression brought on by either their differences in social class, or an inherent need to keep up appearances.
Johansson plays Griet, a timid young house-servant caught in the middle of a family drama. Her presence in the house captures the attentions of Firth’s character, causing a further rift between himself and his wife Catharina, played by the excellent Essie Davis. Due to the nature of the period and circumstances, this is a work of deftly muted performances. The cruel torment of being so close, yet so far is played out with lingering glances as opposed to grandstanding speeches.
We feel great sympathy for Griet and wish a better life for her. Her intelligence shines through, yet she slaves away at her endless chores while the posh folk laze around, rudely barking orders at her – all the while looking broken inside themselves. Her youth and beauty only serve to fuel the existing unhappiness of Catharina (Essie Davis). Other characters circle her world, like Tom Wilkinson; overbearingly vile with intentions we don’t entirely trust, while Greit’s potential knight appears in the guise of Cillian Murphy’s ‘butcher boy’, who offers a potential escape from the trappings of servitude. But then, there’s the silent seduction of playing the muse.
The end result is a subtle, but no less powerful portrait of repression, jealousy and desire. Johansson is beautiful and sincere in a role that demands restraint and great poise as she tempts and resists herself through Firth’s longing gaze. With stunning costume design and a real feel for the period, Girl with a Pearl Earring is both solemn and quiet, yet beneath the canvas, it screams. 4/5