‘”Girl With a Pearl Earring” is a quiet movie, shaken from time to time by ripples of emotional turbulence far beneath the surface. It is about things not said, opportunities not taken, potentials not realized, lips unkissed. All of these elements are guessed at by the filmmakers as they regard a painting made in about 1665 by Johannes Vermeer. The painting shows a young woman regarding us over her left shoulder. She wears a simple blue headband and a modest smock. Her red lips are slightly parted. Is she smiling? She seems to be glancing back at the moment she was leaving the room. She wears a pearl earring.
Not much is known about Vermeer, who left about 35 paintings. Nothing is known about his model. You can hear that it was his daughter, a neighbor, a tradeswoman. You will not hear that she was his lover, because Vermeer’s household was under the iron rule of his mother-in-law, who was vigilant as a hawk. The painting has become as intriguing in its modest way as the Mona Lisa. The girl’s face turned toward us from centuries ago demands that we ask, who was she? What was the thinking? What was the artist thinking about her?
Tracy Chevalier’s novel speculating about the painting has now been filmed by Peter Webber, who casts Scarlett Johansson as the girl and Colin Firth as Vermeer. I can think of many ways the film could have gone wrong, but it goes right, because it doesn’t cook up melodrama and romantic intrigue but tells a story that’s content with its simplicity. The painting is contemplative, reflective, subdued, and the film must be, too: We don’t want lurid revelations breaking into its mood.
Do not believe those who think this movie is about the “mystery” of the model, or Vermeer’s sources of inspiration, or medieval gender roles, or whether the mother-in-law was the man in the family. A movie about those things would have been a bad movie. “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is about how they share a professional understanding that neither one has in any way with anyone else alive.’
Taken from: “Girl With a Pearl Earring”, written by Roger Ebert, for RogerEbert.com, December 26, 2003.
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