The thrill of the chase

Girl With A Pearl Earring captures the repressed desires of its source, while recreating Vermeer’s clear, simple style, says Nick Smurthwaite

From the opening shot of a woman slicing vegetables in a 17th century Dutch kitchen, you know that Girl With A Pearl Earring is going to be a visual experience to savour.

Director Peter Webber seems to have set himself no less a task than to make his film as beautiful and haunting as the Vermeer painting that inspired it.

Based on Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel of the same name, Girl With A Pearl Earring imagines the relationship between the painter, played by Colin Firth, and the model (Scarlett Johansson), a lowly servant in his bustling, bourgeois household.

Henpecked by a materialistic wife and a bullying mother-in-law, Vermeer is attracted to the innocent serenity of the new arrival. To his wife’s disgust, he starts treating the servant like a member of the family and encourages her interest and involvement in his work.

When his rich, lustful patron commissions Vermeer to paint her, he agrees, knowing it will cause a further rift with his wife.

Not much is known about Vermeer the man, but it is on record that he had 11 surviving children, so it is fair to assume that a) he was sexually active and b) that the Vermeer household was at best noisy and frenetic.

His paintings betray none of this mess of family life. They are exquisite little oases of calm and precision undertaken, you imagine, amid the domestic storm raging around him. Of the 35 paintings for which he is known today, some 20

were painted in the same corner of the same room.

What intrigued Chevalier about Girl With A Pearl Earring – a print of which hung on her bedroom wall for years – was how Vermeer managed to make her look happy and sad at the same time. Compared to his other paintings it always seemed more intimate, more real, almost passionate.

Could it be that painter and model had formed some kind of erotic attachment? Using what little is known about Vermeer, Chevalier constructed a story around a servant girl, Griet, being taken into the Vermeer household and unwittingly becoming the catalyst for both misery and one of Vermeer’s finest works.

Chevalier could not have wished for a more sensitive or subtle transposition of her story from page to screen. Always respectful of her work, Webber’s film nevertheless achieves its own power and momentum through stunning cinematography (Eduardo Serra), rich production design by Ben van Os and mesmerising performances from the cast.

This is proof, if it were needed, that in cinematic terms, thwarted passion is often more of a turn-on than full-blown consummation. Firth’s Vermeer, monosyllabic and a touch menacing, knows an affair with Johansson’s Griet is out of the question, but the suppressed erotic charge between them is palpable, coming to a climax of sorts when he poses her for the famous picture, repeatedly urging her to open her mouth and wet her lips.

When he catches a glimpse of Griet in an antechamber, with her lustrous red hair finally released from its stiff Dutch hood, she might as well be naked in his eyes.

This film will move and enthral anyone who has ever stood in front of a great masterpiece wondering how it came into being. For an hour and a half it attempts to unravel the mystery of Girl With A Pearl Earring. It may not be the truth, but the make-believe is sublime.

Girl With A Pearl Earring opens around the country tomorrow

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