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IN SHORT: dandy for the art house. [Rated PG-13 for some sexual content. 99 minutes]
Several times a year we will get mail from readers who decry everything happening in the general movie business. They refuse to even look at advertising for anything in the local cineplex and will only patronize the local art house. (and boy do they complain when a film finds the legs to move out of the art house. to the general market!) Here is a film they will adore, Girl with a Pearl Earring, a film as pretty as the picture that inspired it, created circa 1665 by Johannes Vermeer. Not a lot is known about Vermeer. Only thirty five of his paintings have survived the centuries. Nothing at all is known about the woman whose portrait is at the center of this story, which means novelist Tracy Chevalier got to make up a story from scratch. That's the advantage of writing books: lots of available adjectives and descriptive phrases of character backgrounds and internal emotional dialogs let a writer flesh out a bare bones story to massive proportions. Those extras rarely make the trip to the big screen and the holes they leave must be filled by dialog and/or physical action. Girl with a Pearl Earring does its best to to the latter. It fails because there just isn't enough character development to hold the weight of a full length movie. We've sat through other art house targeted films, due out in these times, with far less subplot potential and far more characterization.
That means those who love the art house will have a dandy time filling in the gaps over cappuccino afterwards.
Griet (Scarlet Johansson) is the new maid at the house of master painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Buried far too subtly in the opening is the reason she must leave her family (her father lost a hand to an exploding kiln -- thanks to the press notes for that bit). She is warned, by her mother, to do her duties -- cleaning and purchasing meat -- and otherwise stay away from the Catholics of the house. The mistress of the house, Vermeer's wife Catharina (Essie Davis), will soon deliver yet another child -- his second occupation besides making paintings is making babies and eleven will ultimately survive. Mother in law Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt) oversees the family income. As we begin this story, the Master Painter is to deliver a new work to his patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). The subject of the work is wife is Van Ruijven's Emily. The unveiling of the work is a major event and boats come from every end of Amsterdam to meet it, and the new child. Van Ruijven approves of the work, even if the color comes from the piss of an Indian cow, and wonders who the next subject will be. Vermeer reveals he hasn't got one yet.
Well, we wouldn't have mentioned Griet if she wasn't important, would we? And, oh, is the girl uncomfortable when the master fixes his gaze on her. Her color sense, as well as a innate talent for design, catches the master's eye, too. He teaches her how to grind materials to manufacture the paint he uses. She begs off, citing no time due to her other duties. "Make time," says the master.
Not that Griet isn't looking for love. The butcher's boy Pieter (Cillian Murphy) is, thankfully, not Catholic and Griet knows foul meat from fresh. His eye is caught. The other servants in the household are thrilled at the potential budding romance. But this is a potential subplot that goes pretty much undeveloped. Nor is Griet's place in the house an easy one. One of the master's children, Cornelia (Alakina Mann), age 12, is an absolute monster. But there's very little of this antagonistic relationship in the overall story either.
Van Ruijven thinks Griet should pose in the next commission, a painting with a large group of people, with Griet at his side. He, apparently, has an eye for the help and all the help know it. Gossip flies through that community as fast as winter falls on the city and freezes the canals. "master and maid. it's a tune we all know" says Van Ruijven. But Vermeer will not follow that instruction. Instead, a "private" commission -- one that his wife doesn't know about -- is taken, with Griet as subject. To see her face, Vermeer instructs her to remove her cap, which is apparently morally objectionable, but she does it when a suitable covering for her head is suggested. And while the wife is away, a pair of pearl earrings are borrowed for use in the composition, which is intended to sit in a private closet, metaphorically as close to 17th century porn (sic) as you can get.
The wife is not dumb. We've told you enough and we could have phrased our description to make the film seem a lot more interesting than it is. Director Peter Webber shoots the movie beautifully. At times it's as if you were looking at a Masters hanging on the wall of the Metropolitan Museum. His pacing is fit for a 17th century setting, which means it moves like molasses for those who don't love the art house. For them, Girl with a Golden Pearl is a pass. For those that love the independent scene, this is a superior sit to any experimental film festival type entry.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Girl with a Pearl Earring, he would have paid . . .
Rent unless you diss the cineplex, in which case Girl with a Pearl Earring is a must see.
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