By Anthony Lane
How many of today’s actresses would be prepared to step into the shoes of Griet, the eponymous heroine of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”? And how many would pull out once they realized that the shoes were, in fact, clogs? All credit to Scarlett Johansson, then, not only for taking the role but for devising a superbly inelegant walk—flat, clumping, and determined, the gait of a woman who has been bred to labor for a living wage and to expect nothing more. Yet something more is sprung upon her. The year is 1665, and Griet goes to work in the house of Johannes Vermeer. The painter is already in thrall to his black moods, his perennially pregnant wife, his formidable mother-in-law, and, given time and space, his art. Now, little by little, the new servant drifts into his view.
Peter Webber’s first film is based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name—a ripe reconstruction of an age, told through the imagined voice of Griet. We lose that first-person narration in the movie, and the outcome is a little more stolid—Griet all but vanishes into the damp stone of her surroundings as she paces beside the canals. That may strike some viewers as undramatic, but it comes with a historical kick. The Griets of that world were not meant to be seen, and it is through the good offices of Vermeer, de Hooch, and their contemporaries—the sanctifying calm of their gaze—that we know of such underlings now. The movie, which was shot by Eduardo Serra, wants to scrape itself against the texture of their days, which is why, for all the elegant re-creation of Dutch interiors, with their sifted sidelighting, we are also dragged to the street market, and to its stinking heads of oxen, as a sanguine reminder that elegance alone is not enough.
Nevertheless, anybody who balks at slowness will be driven up the wall by this movie, not least by the shortfall of its romance. Years of Hollywood training lead us to expect that Colin Firth, as Vermeer, will come on strong to Scarlett Johansson—to assume that desire, like art, must surge across all boundaries. But, if ever a society was bounded, it was Holland in the seventeenth century, and, in defense of such decorum, I would say that the repression going on between Firth and Johansson is more of a turn-on than most of the hot news that movies like to bring us from twenty-first-century bedrooms. Watch the two of them huddled beneath the blackout cloth of a camera obscura, or Vermeer showing Griet how to grind shellac and lapis lazuli (the shards even sound delicious in the hand) while preparing his pigments. Best of all, look closely at Johansson as she puts on the pearl earring and sits for the portrait by which she will, unknowingly, be granted immortal life. Instructed to moisten her lips so as to catch the light, she doesn’t do anything so lubriciously modern as to show her tongue, but gently sucks each lip in like a lozenge—a dazzling detail in what is, by any standards, an immaculate period performance. Johansson, who won the role after Kate Hudson stepped aside, makes no attempt to look pretty; indeed, in the fullness of her figure, and in the breadth of her cheekbones and brow, she displays that mixture of piety and earthiness that we associate with landscapes less urbane than Delft’s, and with artists less given to quietude. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is a tense and civilized tribute to Vermeer, and it is unthinkable without the poise of its leading lady. Yet, if Rembrandt could have glimpsed her, he, likewise, might have reached for his brush.