The Good: Looks good, Decent acting, Fundamental Idea
The Bad: Pacing, Character Issues, Utter lack of genuine plot
The Basics: A potentially good idea - a movie about an artist and his art - falls flat when the subject is too brief.
It seems that with Amadeus (reviewed here!) and Shakespeare In Love (reviewed here!), movie writers came up with a pretty decent idea: why not make movies focusing on artists and their art? This is a fundamentally great idea. Amadeus tells well the story of the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Shakespeare In Love does a wonderful job of presenting a fictionalized version of how William Shakespeare developed Romeo and Juliet; it was a fundamentally good idea. The idea about doing the life of a painter, then, is not a fundamentally bad one, as The Girl With A Pearl Earring attempts to demonstrate.
Unfortunately, The Girl With A Pearl Earring fails to succeed where those other films did because, unlike Amadeus, the subject is not a single artist, but rather a single piece of art. And unlike Shakespeare In Love which worked by focusing on a single piece of art, a play is different from a painting. There is a reason that painter on PBS never made a feature length movie. Why? Watching a movie about a painting (or sculpture or other visual art) would be like . . . well, like watching paint dry. The process by which Johannes Vermeer was inspired to paint The Girl With A Pearl Earring is not quite that bad.
Vermeer, an intense artist who paints people standing next to windows (what else are you going to paint?! I know, a lot!), takes notice one day of the new maid working in his house, Griet. Griet is a young peasant daughter of a half-dead artist who keeps her head wrapped and her nose to her duties. She is intelligent and discriminatory in her tastes, which leads a butcher's son, Pieter, to be drawn to her. Griet finds some fascination in Vermeer's workshop and the two form a friendship that draws jealousy from Vermeer's wife, spite from his daughter and envy from his patron. Thus, Van Ruijven commissions a special painting of Griet, which is the famous painting “Girl With A Pearl Earring.”
There, I just saved you an hour and a half of your life; feel free to send me $5.00. The Girl With A Pearl Earring is not as bad as all that, but it is very slow. The movie centers around Griet and it seems like there is a lot to her character and there are some admirable moments with her, like when she stands up to Vermeer's insistence that she help him in his studio by saying straightforward that she has no time in the day outside her duties in the house.
For another one, the casting is truly inspired. Scarlett Johansson was perfectly cast as Griet, a fact made undeniably true by the final frames of the film when they fade from Griet to the actual painting and it is seamless. Johansson was cast through complete inspiration. But beyond that, Johansson reaffirms what those who saw Lost In Translation already knew; this cat can act! Johansson easily makes us believe in Griet and her conditions, the strain of her workload and through subtle body language and eye movements, her attraction to Vermeer and her cunning. Johansson is a great actress and this movie continues what will no doubt be a long and celebrated career.
Colin Firth, as well, gives a great performance as Vermeer. Firth is subtle and moody, creating Vermeer as a self-involved artist with little clue how the world truly works (outside his need for his patron). Cillian Murphy appears as well as Pieter and it's nice to see him in a post-28 Days Later role. He is charming and has good chemistry with Johansson, making a relationship between Pieter and Griet seem very real and plausible.
The problem is, one minute Pieter is very important to the story of Griet and who she is and where she is going and the next, he is completely absent from the film. There is no resolution of the relationship between Pieter and Griet. Indeed, the entire movie is like that; it is one big failure to resolve the character aspects that the film belabors for an hour plus. That is, The Girl With A Pearl Earring takes a lot of time to introduce Griet, Vermeer, Vermeer's wife, Van Ruijven, and Pieter, and then it ends. The movie establishes some characters, then Vermeer paints Griet and the movie ends.
So, there is a sense, upon the conclusion of the movie, that we were all led on. Characters are established and then set into motion, but before we can see what they do, how they react to the changes in their worlds and circumstances, the movie is over. In the end, this makes the movie dismally unsatisfying; when the movie abruptly concludes, we don't care about the painting, we care about the people behind it. We want to know what happened to Griet and Pieter! We want to know if Van Ruijven ever gets put in his place (or a shallow grave).
This is a good-looking movie, with excellent direction by Peter Webber. But, in the end, Webber is forced to work with something that is too slow and unwieldy and ends at the wrong point for any real satisfaction or catharsis. He makes it look good and he has genuine talent at his disposal, but the net result is still a movie that is difficult to recommend.
For other works with Scarlett Johansson, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Iron Man 2
He’s Just Not That Into You
The Perfect Score
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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