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An earring & an enigma, Mercury News, December 27, 2003, by Bruce Newman


For most of the film ``Girl With a Pearl Earring,'' Griet -- the young housemaid played by Scarlett Johansson -- keeps her hair concealed in a swaddling scarf, a headpiece of such elaborate design that you begin to wonder if she might be bald.

When Griet, at last, removes the cover and we catch the first glimpse of her hair, the effect is almost the same as if she had taken off all her clothes. ``Cinematically, repression is seriously interesting,'' says Peter Webber, the film's director.

Based on Tracy Chevalier's bestselling historical speculation about Vermeer's iconic portrait, ``Girl With a Pearl Earring'' -- which opened in the Bay Area on Friday -- re-creates the Dutch master's 17th-century household so deftly that even the sight of an uncovered head feels revealing. ``The sexual repression she's operating under within that household disappears,'' Webber says, ``and you realize she's not this little girl anymore.''

Though no one knows who the girl in the painting really was, in Chevalier's story Griet has been employed to clean up after Vermeer's quarrelsome wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), and their 11 children. It soon becomes apparent to the artist (played by Colin Firth) that the only person under his own roof who understands him is this young maid, who is forced by her station to remain virtually mute.

The painting has been called ``the Mona Lisa of the North'' because its enigmatic quality is reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece. ``You look at that girl's face and you see a whole mixture of things going on,'' Webber says. ``You see innocence, you see sexuality, happiness and sadness -- it seems to ask as many questions as it answers.''

Vermeer's reaction to the sight of Griet with her head exposed is emblematic of the film's dramatic turning points: He tilts his head meaningfully. ``You're looking to create these little moments of reality,'' Webber says. ``I know the film is very beautiful to look at. If you hire someone as talented as Eduardo Serra'' -- the cinematographer responsible for the film's painterly look -- ``and you have the visual resource of the art of that period, it's going to be beautiful. The trickier thing is making sure there's some life within that beauty, because beauty can be a trap.''

Chevalier's novel was a kind of reverse engineering of the painting. The film not only extends that speculation but also adds the physical texture of shadow and light, the interplay of youth and experience, the polarities of sexual obsession and repression. ``Those polarities are the beating heart of the film really,'' Webber says. ``He's extremely isolated within that household, so the tenderness he experiences from her is very important. It's good, strong, grown-up stuff.

``I think it's a great advantage that we know a bunch of details about Vermeer's life, but not so many that they constrain you. People may think a film about an artist is going to be boring, but this is a story about money, sex and power. It's not one of those turgid biopics.''

To re-create the atmosphere of a Delft household in the mid-1600s, Webber took a minimalist approach to dialogue, often allowing entire scenes to play out without a word spoken. ``I'm sure some people might equate silent with boring,'' he says. ``I thought it was very important to strip the dialogue away. But to do that, you need Colin Firth and you need Scarlett Johansson.''

The role of Griet was originally to have been played by Kate Hudson, Ralph Fiennes was set to play Vermeer, and Mike Newell (``Mona Lisa Smile'') had agreed to direct the picture. But when Hudson backed out, the opportunity to direct fell to Webber, who had done only documentaries before ``Girl With a Pearl Earring.'' He immediately set about auditioning teenage actresses.

``You knew Scarlett was special the moment you met her,'' he says. ``She was a force of nature. Not that all the other actresses we looked at weren't talented, but Scarlett did something that other people couldn't do. She didn't just do ethereal.''

Johansson, who was then 17, had to fly from Tokyo to Europe and start work three days after finishing ``Lost in Translation,'' another movie in which she has a platonic relationship with an older man, played by Bill Murray. (She's been nominated for Golden Globes as best actress in both films.) A year earlier, she appeared in ``The Man Who Wasn't There,'' as a young girl involved with an older man (Billy Bob Thornton this time).

``Scarlett has a quality about her that's much older and wiser,'' Webber says. ``There's a complexity about her, an emotional depth, a combination of innocence and experience and a budding sexuality.'' Also, as it turns out, a great head of hair.

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