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04 April 2006

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

Colin Firth (Vermeer), Scarlett Johansson (Griet), Tom Wilkinson (Pieter Van Ruijven), Cillian Murphy (Pieter)

Directed by Peter Webber

Plot: A young peasant maid working in the house of painter Johannes Vermeer becomes his talented assistant and the model for his most famous work. From the novel by Tracy Chevalier.

Four of my new release library holds came in this week, so I've been movie crazy!

I like Tracy Chevalier's books well enough, without being one of her biggest fans. They are very readable, historically thick, and without any of the sentimentality or naughtiness of some historical romance and fiction. While I prefer her rough, flawed fisrt novel, The Virgin Blue, to her more recent, accomplished works, they are all ripe for the Hollywood treatment. That is, they are ready-made to be cluttered with poor costuming decisions and stripped of their emotional uniqueness.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, for all of its notoriety, was memorable to me for only two particular scenes...scenes that captured the essence of the novel's main themes, obsession and resilience...scenes that unknown director Peter Webber chose to leave out of his movie adaptation. Let me explain.

First, I remember the moment of high dramatic tension when Vermeer has to pierce Griet's ear so she can model the pearl earring. The act is superfluous. He is talented enough and uses models to such a degree that her wearing the earring is not truly necessary to finish his painting. The point of the act--his demand that she honor his request--is a manifestation of their obsession and unfulfilled sexual energy. He pierces her, as if taking her virginity. Fine. That was in the film.

Chevalier continues the scene in the novel to demonstrate the great lengths to which Vermeer goes in testing Griet. And she lets him. She allows herself to be tested, to be marked by him. Vermeer insists that he pierce the other ear, too, even though the three-quarter profile of the pose would keep it hidden. He explains that the weight of her head and the appearance of her posture will reflect the fact that the other ear remains whole. He would know, and that knowledge would appear in the painting. She relents. He pierces the other ear.

The scene is prolonged, vaguely sickening and desperate, serving as the climax of their relationship, and it was not in the movie, much to my disappointment. One piercing, as portrayed in the film, serves as a plain means to an end--she must model the earring. The novel's second piercing reveals Griet's thrill at being singled out by Vermeer, his need to possess her to the greatest extent he might allow himself, and the scope of their unnatural, mutual obsession.

Strike one.

Second, the conclusion of the novel serves to relate Griet's resilience as she returns to life after Vermeer. She is given the earrings when leaves his employ. I cannot remember who gave them to her--whether the wife was disgusted by the sight of them or whether Vermeer gave them to her as a token. Either way, she winds up with the earrings. This is the conclusion of the film. Suck!

The novel describes what Griet does with the pearls: after hesitating and wondering if she should hold onto them as a keepsake of her time with Vermeer, she sells them and pockets the money so as to begin her life with Pieter, the butcher. She is practical, unsentimental, and resigned to her life. It is a good life, after all, paired with a worthy man of equal status and gainful employment. Because she has no practical use for the earrings, she exchanges them for something of value: cash.

Perhaps in an attempt to add more sentimentality to an otherwise sparse, cold film, the director left this rather mercenary finale out of his picture, much to its discredit. He missed the entire point, that of a woman's resiliency and talent for self-preservation, both physically and emotionally, in the face of disappointment and the relative helplessness of her station. In making her choice to sell the earrings, she was not helpless. She had agency. Webber left his Griet looking like a soggy mope with no backbone and no future.

Strike two.

And there were no freakin' checkerboard floors in the attic. I ask you, what is Vermeer without the freakin' overuse of checkerboard floors?

Strike three.

Other strikes include hideous, hideous hair and questionable, inconsistent accents. After all, what happy medium would an American, two Englishmen, and an Irishman come up with to portray the sound of 17th century Dutch people? A mess. Tom Wilkinson's character was unnaturally creepy as the stereotypical, cartoonish, depraved aristocrat. And whereas Chevalier was keen on relating the urban, diverse nature of Delft, I felt only a claustrophobic sense of "village" from the film, as if the filmmakers could not be bothered to create more than two streets for external shots. This period marked the height of Dutch influence as a world power, but none of that success or grandeur was apparent here.

Then there was the blatant abuse of hyper-attractive talent. Keven adores Scarlett Johansson. I think she is cute enough, but I have no special fondness for her. Here, her Lost in Translation-style spark is snuffed. She portrayed a maid of low status and high insecurity, but the agency and determination I described above was absent from every expression. Why were all these men making such a fuss about her? The attraction is never clear.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, surprisingly, highlights what a good actor His High Firthness is. His Vermeer is a distressed, spineless, taciturn, creepy arty type. I know he tried to use the same sort of Darcy-esque stares, but it just came across as desperate. What is appealing about a man with eight kids, a pregnant wife, a domineering mother-in-law, a horny and difficult patron, and meager income who lusts after a teenaged maid? His performance proved to me that Firth is not naturally desirable, but his talent when portraying more assertive, arrogant, thoughtful characters makes him so.

Cillian Murphy, however, is fascinating and kinetically, irrepressibly sexy. Even the hideous, hideous hair and Peter Pan clothes could not distract me (too much) from his wicked cheekbones and translucent, ever-vigilant, incisive eyes. Pieter, in the novel, is a lowly man-boy who attracts Griet because of his relative stability. He is not her dream lover; he is a soft place to fall from the heights of Vermeer's short-lived attentions. Cillian Murphy made the possibility of building a life with Pieter infinitely more appealing than living under Vermeer's creepy old man gaze, thus creating a distortion of interpersonal dynamics that did no justice to the novel...

...and I didn't like the book that much. The movie was just poor.

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