2004-03-12 / Columnists

MovieScope By Robert Snyder

Girl With The Pearl Earring

The secret of actress Scarlett Joh nansson is her silence. At age 17, she has made three movies ("The Horse Whisperer," "Lost in Translation" and now, "Girl With the Pearl Earring") where she hardly says a word. Yet, her impact is profound.

With her opaque skin, warm eyes and full lips, she expresses volumes with simply and look or a gesture. Johansson is a throwback to the great silent film actresses85a welcome relief in this time of tittering teenyboppers.

Replacing the far more verbose Kate Hudson, she is ideally suited to play the reluctant 17th century artist model, Griet, in the exquisitely photographed, "Girl With the Pearl Earring." Based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, "Pearl" speculates about what steamy undercurrents connected to produce the great portrait of a peasant girl wearing a fine jewel. The artist is Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth), who lives in a small house in Delft, Holland. He is under pressure to create great paintings to satisfy his benefactor Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) and keep his demanding wife Cath arina (Essie Davis), mother-in-law Maria (Judy Par fitt) and eleven children fed. When her tile-making fath er becomes blind, Griet is forced to go to work as a servant in the Vermeer residence. Johannes, who has an artist’s eye for pretty young girls, instantly is infatuated with his new employee and a chaste, but smoldering relationship erupts between them. The sparks are not lost on Catharina. She grows more and more hysterical as her jealousy consumes her. Yet, Griet manages to keep her post until the classic portrait is complete.

Working with cinematographer Eduardo Serra, director Peter Webber carefully replicates the buttery texture of Vermeer’s works. While imitating painted art (no matter how beautiful) can be deadly in movie world, Webber makes the stillness and silence boil with sexual power. In fact, the scene where Johannes pierces Griet’s ear is one of the most erotic moments in cinema. Credit should also go to production designer Ben van Os for bringing into urban Holland of the 1600’s, where the unsavory, and often unsanitary street life was reflected in the subtle vision of such artists as Vermeer.
However, key to the story is the artist’s ingenious method of reconciling his financial dilemma without sacrificing the integrity of his craft. His solution is to capture the tenuous innocence of his beautiful, young maid. While his wife railed that the portrait was akin to pornography, Johannes knew better, which is why the painting hangs in The Hague today. However, it is Johnansson who carries "Pearl" in a way that seems effortless. She merely has to "be" Griet by opening her warm, wide eyes and puckering her full, ruby lips. She is an artistic treasure unto herself.

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