When Girl With a Pearl Earring opens, the titular heroine is peeling an onion. In its appropriate but somewhat obvious application, the image represents the film, but novice filmmaker Peter Webber makes a stately virtue of his story's simplicity. The tale of dreamy transcendence from daily drudgery to high-minded art and high-flying love comes from an elemental place, as did Johannes Vermeer's deceptively simple studies of everyday folk bathed in light. The film takes inspiration from two primary sources: Vermeer's paintings, including The Girl With the Pearl Earring, and Tracy Chevalier's bestselling historical fiction which speculates one version of how the "Mona Lisa of the North" may have come into existence.
In what qualifies as a casting coup, Webber landed Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) to play the girl, imagined here as a servant named Griet who must toil for Vermeer's household after her tilemaker father's tragic blinding. Johansson bears an uncanny resemblance to the girl in the Vermeer canvas, and delivers a magnetic performance, marked by opaque and averted gazes, open-mouthed wariness and wonder, and closed-mouthed pensiveness and tension. Hers is an existence simultaneously shut-in by class but ever invited into the light by men taken with her come-hither beauty. Chevalier's clever love triangle, depicted in understated fashion by Webber, finds the seventeen-year-old Griet not quite ungrateful for the advances of a smitten butcher boy named Pieter (Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later), but aflame with the possibilities personified by the aloof Vermeer (flavor-of-the-decade Colin Firth, in smoldering mode).
As a lower-class woman in 1665 Holland (the town of Delft, to be exact), Griet is assumed to belong to the butcher (the first man to come along) but, in fact, beholden to others' advances. The insinuating curiosity Vermeer expresses toward Griet, as he leans halfway into doorways and watches her work or insists she apprentice his trade in the guise of serving him, form a welcome implied courtship. Griet must navigate not only Pieter's good-natured plans for her, but the petulant interference of Vermeer's wife Catherina (Essie Davis), their spiteful daughter Cornelia (Alakina Mann), and Vermeer's patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson, at his most insufferable). Van Ruijven, unsurprisingly, openly harrasses Griet and expects sexual favor for his eventual insistence that the master painter make her his next subject.
Catherina demands of her husband, "Why don't you paint me?" "Because you don't understand," he replies. "And she does?" Webber highlights the intimacy of painter and subject; in Chevalier's story, Vermeer and Griet understand each other implicitly: for both, each canvas holds the potential of freedom and the danger of a trap. Vermeer, whose reputation grew exponentially after his death, lives under the spectre of artistic and financial failure, while Griet's livelihood hangs tenuously in the balance of her favor with her "betters." The story is a sympathetic pre-feminist one, rife with the casual sexism of the day. The motif of people on the outside of doorways looking in reflects Griet's position but also her bittersweet last laugh as the eternal, eternally beautiful subject of a work of art.
If Webber lays it on a bit thick in spots, he's to be forgiven. The mostly unassuming screenplay by Olivia Hetreed wields a few incongruous clunkers which might fairly prompt starchiness ("You're a fly in his web. We all are."), but the development of the relationship between Griet and Vermeer is a quiet and careful progression ever mindful of what Griet can and cannot have. With director of photography Eduardo Serra (who also shot The Wings of the Dove and this year's The Flower of Evil), Webber exquisitely renders the entire story in Vermeer's terms of soft, natural light: a practical special effect. Alexandre Desplat ably bedecks their work with a sumptuous score. All of the furnishings coincide in the film's powerful finish. In the waning scenes of the film, Webber keeps the titular painting in long shot until a mesmerizing pull-back reveal. This is, so to speak, the face that launched a thousand shots and, in its teasingly quiet repose, the only pertinent last "word" on the subject.