By Alan Riding
LONDON, Dec. 8 — With great portraits it is usually the painter, not the painted, who is remembered: even emperors, kings and popes take second place when Titian, Rubens or Velázquez portray them. Yet a few unidentified models, Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Goya's Maja among them, have become icons. And now, thanks to a best-selling novel and a new movie, Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" may be joining them.
The painting was among 20 oils in the Vermeer show seen in Washington and The Hague in the mid-1990's. In 1999 it reappeared on the cover of Tracy Chevalier's novel "Girl With a Pearl Earring," which imagined the girl to be Griet, a buxom maid who becomes Vermeer's muse. Now, in Peter Webber's movie adaptation, which opens Dec. 12 in New York and Los Angeles, it is Scarlett Johansson's Griet who is stirring the repressed passion of Colin Firth's Vermeer.
For the purpose of fiction, of course, it helps that not too much is known about Vermeer's life. This Dutch master was born in 1632 and died in 1675; he made about 45 paintings (some 35 survive); he lived in his mother-in-law's house with his wife, Catharina, and eventually 11 children; he worked as an art appraiser; he had a wealthy patron, Pieter van Ruijven; he painted slowly, doing perhaps two oils a year; and his models were probably family members or friends.
On screen "Girl With a Pearl Earring" captures the mood of a mid-17th-century Delft household as reflected in Dutch genre paintings. And it skillfully evokes the light, color, silence and intimacy that characterize Vermeer's works. It even shows Griet walking through Delft's town square in the right direction to reach the canal-side house where Vermeer once lived. It could be said that almost everything about the film is real — except the story. And this story is not about painting, Mr. Webber insisted, eager to distance his first feature film from traditional artist biopics. "It's about creativity and the link between art and money and power and sex in some strange unholy mixture," he explained over coffee in a private club near Notting Hill Gate. "That's what interested me when I read the screenplay." He paused, then added with a loud laugh, "To tell you the truth, I'm more interested in sex than in painting."
At least since Raphael's "Fornarina" the two activities have never been far apart. For many artists the very act of painting a woman is a form of making love. Others needed to satisfy their sexual appetite less metaphorically. And if Vermeer's very proper models — reading letters, pouring milk, playing a virginal — suggest this artist was a bit of a square, Ms. Chevalier, Mr. Webber, Mr. Firth and the screenwriter, Olivia Hetreed, have infused him with a fair dose of smoldering eroticism.
The movie's plot has Griet sent to clean Vermeer's studio every morning after her father is blinded in an accident. Inevitably the maid and the artist meet. She is intrigued by his painting, he is struck by her wide-eyed youthful beauty. Soon Catharina Vermeer is fuming with jealousy, but her own mother, who runs the household, is sure van Ruijven will pay well for a portrait of Griet. So she secretly lends Catharina's pearl earring to the girl.
The film is remarkably silent, except for Catharina's ranting. "I wanted it to be different from the standard English costume drama where people talk too much," Mr. Webber said. "Vermeer's paintings are not loquacious. It's a quiet, tense, mysterious, transcendent world. I wanted to capture some of that mood. Sex is not about words. Power is not about words. We have such great performances that you can tell what people are thinking."
As Griet, Ms. Johansson, the young American actress who is currently also starring in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," is at the heart of the movie. Now just 19, but 17 when the film was made, she also looks the part, not only in her period costumes but also with her large eyes, peach skin and full lips, all suggesting both innocence and sexual awakening. Like other major players in the movie, though, she is Griet by accident.
Three years ago the film's producers, Andy Paterson and Anand Tucker, were just one month away for production when their first Griet, Kate Hudson, pulled out. The project sank and with it Ralph Fiennes as Vermeer and Mike Newell as director. The film was reborn in 2001 when Mr. Webber was chosen as director and casting began anew. But no one was more surprised to be involved than Mr. Webber, who in the movie world, as he put it, fell into the category of "Who?"
"My career has proceeded through the obvious suspects being busy," he said with good humor.
Well, not quite. Now in his late 30's, he spent five years as a freelance television editor in London, where, he recalled, he worked with both talented directors and "a whole bunch who were just faking it." Bored with spending days in a small dark room, he decided to become a director himself.
"I always wanted to do it," he said, "and I thought, `I can at least be as bad as some of these people.' "
Over the next five years he made 14 hourlong documentaries for Channel 4 in Britain, with a focus on classical music and popular science. An important move came in 1997 when he persuaded Channel 4 that a planned documentary about Schubert should be dramatized. Two subsequent television movies, "Men Only" (2001) and "Stretford Wives" (2002), finally won him attention in Britain.
Even so, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" came his way by chance. While visiting the offices of Mr. Paterson and Mr. Tucker, he saw a poster of the painting.
"I had seen the picture as a student on a trip to The Hague," Mr. Webber said, noting that he studied art history in college, "and Andy heard me talking about it and handed me the script. I immediately saw how to do it. The beating heart of the movie was that obsessive love affair and how Vermeer used it to create a masterpiece."
The casting process naturally began with Griet. After interviewing scores of actresses between ages 16 and 24, "one worked," Mr. Webber said, "Scarlett Johansson." Mr. Firth quickly came aboard, and others followed: Tom Wilkinson as van Ruijven, Essie Davis as Catharina, Judy Parfitt as Vermeer's mother-in-law and Cillian Murphy as Pieter, Griet's butcher boyfriend.
Mr. Webber set most of the movie inside Vermeer's house, "letting the pressure cooker atmosphere build up," he said. But the story is driven more by looks than by narrative, "which is difficult for some people, and it means it is `more deliberately paced,' which is code for slower, than most contemporary films," he added. "It was what I wanted to do, but I have been surprised that people like it as much as they do. I suppose it is because the romance works."
Yet the movie's ending suggests that Mr. Webber has not forgotten his early interest in art: after the last scene and before the final credits, Vermeer's painting fills the screen. "For me, the end of the film is not what happens to Griet," he said. "It's about having the audience stare at the painting for one and a half minutes. I'm quite proud of that. It's not often that people take time off to do that."