Girl With a Pearl Earring
directed by Peter Webber
(Lions Gate, 2003)

In Peter Webber's newest film, it all comes down to the glowing earring in a servant girl's ear.

It swallows the light, giving some of it back in an ivory incandescence, in a soft, rounded shading of gray. And wrapped up in that light is betrayal, lust, art, science, class division and some love as well.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is a movie that examines the story behind one painting by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master who really was the Master of Light 400 years before Thomas Kinkade decided to give himself a "Painter of Light" copyright.

It's unlikely that, 400 years from now, an author will imagine a whole life around one young woman sitting in a Kinkade painting, as Tracy Chevalier did for Vermeer in her book by the same title. Chevalier's book, about a young maid in the house of Vermeer, made the leap from canvas to the gritty reality of Delft, Holland, in the 1640s.

Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is sent to work as a maid in Vermeer's home. It's a time of upheaval for Vermeer (Colin Firth); he is dependent on a Machiavellian patron for commissions, and his wife's family's money is dwindling.

Griet's astute nature soon attracts Vermeer's attention. He trains her to be his assistant, mixing colors and allowing her free rein in his studio -- privileges he denies his own wife. But when patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) senses a growing tension, he begins the manipulation: he commissions Vermeer to paint Griet, alone.

Chevalier's book has the luxury of time, time to connect the gulf between Vermeer and Griet (and her young butcher suitor, Pieter) to the class divisions of 17th-century Holland; to examine the split of Protestants and Catholics; to more fully examine the depth of Van Ruijven's plotting and the Vermeer family's desperation.

It had more time for Catharina, Vermeer's wife, to explain why this young servant poses such a threat to the family's unity and its place in society. And it all hinges on the moment when Vermeer, ready to paint Griet's portrait and with his mother-in-law's complicity, pierces Griet's ear, wipes away the blood and carefully inserts his wife's pearl earring in Griet's ear.

That heavy pearl -- a symbol of sensuality, one of his wife's most cherished possessions -- becomes the movie's linchpin: an icon of the sexual attraction Vermeer and Griet feel for each other, even though he loves his wife; an object that simultaneously underscores the huge separation between artist and model; a mark of Vermeer's betrayal.

Vermeer's slants of light are lushly reproduced by director of photography Eduardo Serra, and the production is meticulously designed, down to Delft's canals. It all gives Johansson and Firth the glow of authenticity, capping off a pair of understated performances that fidget under the restraints of propriety.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 18 December 2004

Buy it from