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
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,
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.
~~ Jules Brenner