Girl With A Pearl Earring
starring Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis, Joanna Scanlan and Alakina Mann
screenplay by Olivia Hetreed
directed by Peter Webber
Based on the novel of the same title by Tracy Chevalier, this is a fantastic film that you must see. It is about the creation circa 1665 of the portrait of the same name by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson give incredible performances. The costumes, sets, settings and even the filtered light on the camera lenses produce a reliable recreation of town life at that time (the town of Delft, in Holland). Like Shakespeare in Love, or The Merchant of Venice, the period feels like it has been captured on film. Not just the clothes, but the environment and the mores of the time. Despite the fact that the film is representing town life of a cultured nation in the early modern period, life is still rough and dirty: no garbage collection; no sewerage; no plumbing or central heating; no regular bathing; no refrigerated food storage; no government inspection for quality control; no reliable police service; no antiseptic medicine; lots of horse dung in the streets.
It’s very lovely how the story evolves slowly, with soft, haunting music. The social intercourse with the opposite sex is so difficult that you are jolted with the realization that the culture of Europe just 400 years ago is a universe away from our culture today. It was a different world. And yet director Peter Webber needs erotic tension between Vermeer and a house maid (Scarlett Johanssen) to help set the mood and tell the tale of the passion of the artist for his life and the work that comes out of it. A seemingly simple thing like getting one’s ears pierced and wearing the artist’s wife’s earring to sit for a portrait was scandalously revolutionary in 17th century Holland - almost moral depravity and grounds for seeking a divorce.
For the artist, color and light, painting texture and contrasts in size, perspective and shadow were almost erotic passions. The artist does the work he does because he must. His canvas is like his skin. His paints are his nourishment. The sunlight is his air to breathe. Any work or art, from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling to a Jackson Pollack or Andy Warhol is a visual representation of what Love looks like what it feels like. Sometimes Love is ugly, as we see in war art. Sometimes it is strange, like Cubism.
It is true in music, as well. Listen to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and what are you listening to? You are listening to what Love sounds like.
Vermeer is famous for producing his work slooooooooooooooowwwwly, taking months, or even years to finish a painting. Like Vincent Van Gogh, or Rembrandt van Rjin, Vermeer had a thing about light and how to capture it on canvas.
I enjoyed Tom Wilkinson as Vermeer’s patron, Van Ruijyen. We are reminded how poor most painters are in life, living by commission from patrons, and only eulogized as valuable geniuses after their deaths.