A painting rather than a movie | AspenTimes.com

A painting rather than a movie

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Forgive “Girl With a Pearl Earring” for believing itself to be a still painting, rather than a movie.

“Girl With a Pearl Earring” is, after all, concerned largely with painting. The first film by director Peter Webber reveals the story behind one of the masterpieces by 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” was inspired by the gorgeous, virtuous house maid, Griet. Through no fault of her own ” other than being beautiful and a daily presence in the Vermeer household ” Griet has angered Vermeer’s jealous, vengeful wife, Catharina.

Catharina’s hostility is not without some cause. Griet ” played by Scarlett Johansson with almost surreal sensuality, considering she never once smiles and is mostly covered head to toe with peasant’s smocks ” has indeed attracted the eye of Vermeer (Colin Firth). Also much taken with the young maid is Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), Vermeer’s manipulative, mischievous patron. When Van Ruijven commissions Vermeer to make a portrait of Griet, the already tense Vermeer household is thrown into combat mode.

It is a decent story, and Webber’s telling of it sustains our interest. But Webber is overly concerned with making his “Girl With a Pearl Earring” visually worthy of Vermeer’s. Every frame of the movie is shot in the manner of a still painting, with shadow and light, contrast and composition painfully executed. The camera hardly ever moves.

Worse still, the actors’ expressions virtually never change. Firth’s Vermeer is caught in a pinched face, the result of his wife’s nagging. Johannson’s Griet never wavers from her aggrieved countenance, the result of Catharina’s menacing. Vermeer’s mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) keeps the permanent expression of the dried-up, domineering witch that she is.

Webber has, indeed, created a work of visual art. There is no denying the beauty of “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” It is a small victory that the story holds up to all this focus on the visual. But one can’t help but think that the overemphasis on the look of the film strangles the movie more than a little.

[“Girl With a Pearl Earring” shows today at 5:30 p.m. at Harris Hall, as part of Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings series. The Academy Screenings run through Jan. 2, with daily screenings at Harris Hall. For a full schedule, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.]

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]

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