After hearing a panel of respected film critics rave on Charlie Rose about The Girl with the Pearl Earring, I was eager to see it. After leaving the theater, it took me some time to decide what I thought about it. The effect is has on you is very subtle and you have to think long and hard before you can decide whether you liked it or not.
Ultimately, I was left feeling cold by the movie. While telling a story about a man totally immersed in a passionate pursuit of artistic beauty, the story left me strangely unmoved. There is very little plot to speak of and characterization is quite meager. Most characters are either ciphers or caricatures (e.g. Vermeer’s wife and his patron). Even Vermeer himself seems an incohate mass of artistic and sensual impulse with little or no depth.
Scarlett Johansson in “Girl With a Pearl Earring”
The only character who is more fully fleshed out is Scarlett Johannson’s lead character, the servant girl, Griet. Make no mistake, she is quite a compelling character. Her creativity and artistic inquisitiveness contrasted with her lowly, uneducated origins make her very appealing.
What does this film have going for it? Visuals, visuals and more visuals! The scenes in which Vermeer teaches the maid to mix his paint are breathtakingly beautiful. I can’t remember when I’ve seen such luscious colors in cinema. The blues are stunningly, electrifyingly blue. The coppers, greens and oranges equally so. As she mixes these colors in Vermeer’s studio, bringing together chemicals and minerals from the earth’s core to create such incredible visual beauty, it is as if earth and eye melded all of Nature’s forces to create Painting.
The passion in this film is undoubtedly in the painting and not in traditional cinematic elements like story or character. Everything that is not about art seems incidental and that seems a shame. A film that had more of a balance of these elements might have satisfied more fully and deeply. I liken it to cargo handlers who load a plane with the entire cargo wedged into the far back corner. When that plane takes off, it will strain under the imbalanced cargo distrbution and perhaps crash. While Girl With a Pearl Earring is by no means such a disaster, it achieves its full potential fitfully and inconsistently and thereby disappoints.
The film’s final scene, in which one of Vermeer’s servants brings Griet the very pearl earrings she wore when he painted the famous picture (and which caused her expulsion from the household), is also a letdown. The entire film has been about Art to the exclusion of all else. At the end, the director would have us believe that Vermeer’s transfer of the real earrings to Griet is some kind of meaningful act. To me, on the contrary, it seems like a betrayal of all that both Vermeer and Griet held dear. In the face of the extraordinary beauty of the painting, centered in the single luminous flash of white paint on the girl’s earring, how can the real thing mean anything significant?