Cinema Signal:

A View of Delft

Vermeer's Camera:
Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

. "Girl With a Pearl Earring"

If you've ever stood before a great painting from centuries ago and imagined the real life and situation of its subject then you'll fully understand how novelist Tracy Chevalier might have found inspiration from her imaginings about the Johannes Vermeer portrait of this title. Vermeer's style being one of startling realism and natural light certainly invites that sort of fascination and engagement.

Chevalier's researched novel, which centers around sixteen year old Griet in 17th century Holland, becomes the basis for the movie, penned by Olivia Hetreed and directed by Peter Webber in a largely successful effort to create the atmosphere of the Dutch town Delft, with its thriving commerce, its taste for art, and its flammable intrigues.

When Griet's (luminous, lovely Scarlett Johansson of "Lost In Translation" fame) tilemaker father is blinded in an accident he is forced to send her to the closest town where she is to become a maid for the master painter Vermeer (Colin Firth) and his uptight family. While apparently well-off, the financial survivability of this household rests on the continued patronage of Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), a man of wealth, an art lover, a lech with an eye to beauty. Immediately he sees Griet his blood starts racing.

Griet learns the routine of the house and launches into the work with dedicated energy and obedience to her masters. When she shops for meat, she catches the eye of the butcher's son Pieter who takes every opportunity to be in her company. When she is in Vermeer's studio to clean it, her eyes are wide in amazement at its every detail. When Vermeer discovers in her an eager and apt student, he has her mix his paint, study the image of his camera obscura and, even, affect his compositions. These attentions resolve into a perception by wife Catharina (Essie Davis) of unthinkable class elevation, leading to an increasingly dangerous situation of jealousy and paranoia.

Only Vermeer's mother-in-law Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt) seems to have a handle on the political situation and, as house financier, the leadership role in maintaining both sanity and survival. Pulling on her strings of influence, she arranges a dinner in order to sell Van Ruijven on the idea of a new commission. This turns into a demand for a portrait of Griet, one that is to remain in his private hands, never to be seen in public. Vermeer agrees but requires his wife's pearl earrings for the portrait, knowing full well what repercussions there would be if this secret addition to his composition were to become known.

The setting for this potential domestic earthquake as well as its appropriateness for the time and place, is put together with expert hands from extensive research and the extraordinary paintings of the period. Production designer Ben van Os took the idealized images and added livestock and mud to the street scenes and plenty of art to the interior walls. A painting of powerful sexual force is notable on the wall in Van Ruijven's opulent quarters. None of this period naturalism is wasted in a movie that depends on it.

It's Johannsen's presence that affords us the best treat, here, however. Even while emoting with her wide eyes of amazement and incredulity perhaps for the 100th time, I remained in thrall to her ripe, sensual beauty and emotional instincts. While these qualities portend a star orbit for her, it's the voluptuousness of her looks which makes it perfectly sensible that she'd be chosen to portray the modern-day equivalent of Vermeer's thought provoking 17th century portrait of a mysterious, exquisite girl.

Firth is broodingly virile, amply suggesting why Griet might be in a state of arousal over more than his painting talent, which plays into the ignitable intrigues permeating the residence. His portrayal also captures a degree of sympathy for the man of art threatened by the parlor politics of three generations of women. Wilkinson is in complete manifestation of the rich, touchy-feely lech.

Cinematographer Eduardo Serra doesn't only expertly render the textural richness of the scenery, costumery and cast, but he takes his lighting cues from the master's eyes. That highly directional Vermeer side light with gradations of tonal values into deep shadow are used in his photography to maximize the third dimensional effect, with the added enhancement of an amber-gold overlay. This is marvelously applied to the Johannsen features enveloped within the framing of her bonnet. The Kodak moment, however, comes when she at last removes her headpiece and reveals her red hair in all its flowing magnificence. The impact of it is a breathe-taker, as designed.

This emphasis on looks is not merely a voyeuristic or idle issue. Without much in the way of action, the entire drama revolves around the emotional waves set in motion by the presence of unusual beauty. What novelist Chevalier imagined is that the girl in the painting might have created this kind of tension and disruption in the very household of the admiring painter. As director Webber's camera rests lovingly and longingly on the big eyes and neon lips of the subject, he is supporting that proposition and making art out of speculation.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack album


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