Girl with a Pearl Earring is another one of those bodice bearing period dramas that seem to be a requisite for female Hollywood actresses who want to be taken seriously. Like all the rest of its ilk, Pearl Earring will probably delight women but put men to sleep.
Though I am a man I did manage to stay awake. Scarlett Johansson has that effect. Even on her worst days she’s entrancing. If Oscar doesn’t shine on her this year for her work in Lost in Translation opposite Bill Murray, then something has gone horribly wrong. This performance however is far less noteworthy.
In Earring, Johansson plays Griet, a peasant girl trapped in the class dictated life of seventeenth century Holland. Forced to work as a maid for the brilliant painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth), she develops a love for art. Vermeer notices and becomes fascinated by her beauty. Despite the jealousy of his wife, he uses the shy and excruciatingly polite Griet as a model for what becomes one of his most famous paintings.
Director Peter Webber wishes his movie was a film about obsession, caste, and art. Despite taglines and promotional materials pronouncing that this is so, Earring never achieves anything quite that interesting. Instead what we have is a fairly slow moving character piece about a rather boring peasant who doesn’t say much and doesn’t really show much initiative. Sure she sneaks around behind her mistresses’ back to play artsy-fartsy with her master, but only because he tells her to. And despite marketing slogans to the contrary, Vermeer doesn’t seem so much obsessed with her as mildly interested. Sure, the camera lingers over both of them with beautiful and sensual longing… but the story itself never conveys what the camera so desperately tries to reveal.
Pearl’s relationships come off fairly tepid and bland. There’s little sense of involvement with what happens to its characters and little reason to care. Yes, Johansson does a great job playing out the more delicate nuances of Griet, a character who says almost nothing and does even less. But to me, it felt like there was never much there for her to work with.
That’s not to say Pearl Earring doesn’t put forth effort. It’s a lavishly crafted film, with beautiful visuals and carefully detailed set designs. The score by Alexandre Desplat is a fantastic revelation and stands out above and beyond anything that happens on screen. Webber goes to great pains to realistically depict seventeenth century life, right down to the tedious details of washing windows and mixing paint. The acting, particularly from Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson, is pitch perfect in every scene. But you just can’t draw blood from stone.
Regrettably that seems to be what Webber is attempting. There isn’t much story here beyond a look or two at a painting. Based on an award winning novel or not, no matter how lavish or how detailed Webber makes his film, the story just isn’t strong enough to grab anyone’s attention. The film lacks soul and no amount of floor scrubbing minutiae is going to give you that.