In Frida, her 2002 biopic on painter Frida Kahlo, director Julie Taymor re-created images from Kahlo's paintings to illustrate events in her subject's life, finding an innovative way to incorporate art into the story of an artist. In Girl With a Pearl Earring, director Peter Webber goes one step further, essentially creating an entire movie out of one painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, the titular image of an enigmatic girl with a cloth head wrap and a single pearl earring.
Little is known about the life of the actual Vermeer, so Olivia Hetreed's screenplay, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, creates a speculative story around the single, striking image. The girl of the painting becomes Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a 17th-century teen in Delft, Holland. To earn money for her poor family, Griet goes to work as a maid in the house of the great painter (Colin Firth) and his family, including a shrewd mother-in-law, a jealous wife and a gaggle of children.
The painter and maid share an obvious attraction, but one that can never be consummated. Instead, he has her pose for the painting, to be produced for lecherous patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). The longing in the girl's eyes in the painting is translated into Griet's own romantic longing, the expression of the repressed desires she must forever keep bottled up inside. Johansson, known for snarky hipsters in Ghost World and Lost in Translation, inverts all the emoting she's ever done and puts it into a range of simple, but evocative, facial expressions. Firth is allowed more emotional range, but he too conveys much with a brief look.
Webber and his production team create a strikingly beautiful and artistic film, one that would go well alongside Frida in art history classes. There are images throughout the film that are re-creations of other famous Vermeer works, and the historical detail is painstakingly realized. But the love story is barely there at all, and although it's supposed to work under the surface, it ends up buried so deep that it's hard to believe. Griet and Vermeer's relationship is all smoldering glances and vaguely suggestive conversations. Johansson and Firth act the hell out of what little they've got, but it's just not enough. It all adds up to one long, slowbut very prettybore.