Girl With a Pearl Earring
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Girl With A Pearl Earring

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While so many modern films start right off with action, pulling the audience into the story, some take their time. Like easing yourself into a nice hot bath the story slowly surrounds you, giving you enough of an opportunity to become involved with the characters. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is like the latter. The inspiration for a film can come from many sources; comic books are currently the popular choice. Here, a classic painting inspired the story line. When you look at the painting of a girl wearing a simple pearl earring by Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) you have to wonder who this girl was, what was her relationship with the artist and how did she come to pose. The film could have made the mistake of forcing the point of view of the writer, forcing the audience to accept this flight of conjecture. Instead, we are given a glimpse into the lives of the model and painter, a story flowing organically out for our consideration. Some 21st century sensibilities do creep into the plot. The servant girl Griet (Scarlett Johansson) starts out to help support her family finds an interest in the process of art and is permitted to help Vermeer out in his studio. While this breaking of class boundaries makes for a good story of feminine empowerment such things were exceeding rare during the time the story is set. After all why should an ego centric painter care what an illiterate girl thought about his work? In order to get the most you possibly can from the film it is better not to over analysis such matters.

Of course for any drama to work you must have an antagonist. Here it comes in the form of Varmeer’s harpy of a mother-in-law Maria (Judy Parfitt). She rules the roost with an iron hand, everyone in the household is subject to her intense scrutiny. Maria’s position in the household is secured by her daughter Catharina’s (Essie Davis) large brood of children by Vermeer. All this seems to weigh upon the artist, he is moody, sullen and except when he is working on his latest painting, depressed. Thankfully, the all too obvious ploy of culminating the sexual tension with a graphic scene is not utilized here. This is a film that reflects a work of art and it steers away from what many in the audience have become conditioned to expect. It is reassuring to see a film that doesn’t pander to the puerile expectations of our time. The film does have its emotional hills and valleys; there is enough conflict to keep the story on track although many will feel that the film is a bit too slow. Personally, I enjoyed not being assaulted but rather allowed to just sit back and enjoy the view.

In a film where the interest of the audience must be maintained by the interaction of the characters instead of special effects it is vital to cast actors that are up to the challenge. Fortunately for us the casting directors did their job very well. Colin Firth as Vermeer conveys a man internally conflicted. He comes across not as a man feeling trapped by his life but rather as one that is between the social pressures to be a man of means working against his overwhelming need to create his art. Scarlett Johansson is the center of the film both emotionally and visually. Here is an actress that despite her tender years is making quite a mark in the community of cinema. She was only about eighteen when involved with this production yet her command of the screen is far better than almost all of her contemporaries. Coming off of such films as Ghost World and the acclaimed Lost in Transition, Johansson is demonstrating an innate, natural ability to present a character in such a fashion that the audience is comfortable with and can identify with. With this actress some of the glamour and talent of the golden age of Hollywood have returned. In her scenes with Firth there is a natural chemistry that comes across; nothing appears to be forced on the audience.

Coming off of several television productions this is the freshman big screen opus for director Peter Webber. Even with those that did not enjoy this film they had to admit that the look of the film is incredible. Webber and his crew perfectly captured the look and feel of a Vermeer painting through the film. Webber also avoids the common pit fall of placing style of substance. Even though the style of the film really drives the story he does permit the actors to do their job instead of being relegated to animated props. This is a film that exists almost completely on the emotional level. You feel the film more than having to understand it. While this may seem like a negative aspect it works here. Instead of pounding the audience Webber permits us to surrender to moment, relax and enjoy the surroundings. Even scene is lit to perfection, the staging and composition re-writes the textbook on such matters. The way the camera pauses on the face of Johansson, the glow of her skin in the gentle light, Webber employs his camera like Vermeer used the pigments of his paints. While a little more on the reasons for the artist’s emotional state would have been appropriate the lack of this aspect of the back story does not necessarily detract from the over all success of the work.

The DVD is beautifully presented. The Dolby 5.1 audio creates a sound stage without any obvious holes. This is not a film that requires the use of a lot of sub woofer action. The sound flows, it doesn’t pound you. The all important video is spectacular. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is completely without flaw. Even in the darkest scenes there is a smooth black level, the contrast is among the best I have seen. The extras include a commentary track by the director. He details some of the difficulties that where over come in bringing a story of complete conjecture to the screen. There is also a feature that is becoming increasing popular, the anatomy of a scene. Here we see step by step how a scene was film a gather a little insight into just what it takes to present such a stylistic film. While not for everyone if you crave a break from the fast pace modern world gt this film and enjoy the slow ride.

Posted 4/7/04

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