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Painting a still life with ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

If it is possible to paint a movie, that is what director Peter Webber has done with “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Or more to the point, that is what cinematographer Eduardo Serra and production designer Ben van Os have done. “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” which tells the back story of the making of Jan Vermeer’s masterpiece of the same name, is as much a work of painterly art as it is a motion picture.

“Girl With a Pearl Earring” is blatant in its ambition to suggest the work of the 17th-century Dutch master Vermeer. The look of the film is all shadow and light, color and composition. Most every frame could work as its own still image. Most obvious are the scene shifts: a dark-hued scene ” set, say, inside the luxurious but forbidding Vermeer mansion ” will invariably give way to an outdoor scene soaked in glorious yellow sunlight.

To a point, it is a marvelous effect. “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is a beautiful film, glowing with its contrasts and shadings.



But the focus on the visual goes overboard. The emphasis can serve as a slight distraction from the other elements that are supposed to make up a movie. In its effort to approximate a painting, the camera hardly ever moves, giving the film a stilted feel.

Worse is the effect on the acting. As in a painting, the subjects here seem frozen in a single emotion. Whether this was intentional or not, there it is.




Griet, the young housemaid played by Scarlett Johansson, is fixed in a wide-eyed expression intimidation. Vermeer (Colin Firth) maintains his pinched, pained countenance throughout. Vermeer’s domineering mother-in-law (Maria Thins) never wavers from her calculating reserve. The only character who shows any range is van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), Vermeer’s leering, manipulative patron. It is not that there is no emotion on display ” there’s plenty. But they are cast in stone.

Still, there is a story told in “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” adapted from Tracy Chevalier’s novel. It’s a small triumph that the story doesn’t get lost in the visuals and the unchanging expressions. It’s a simple plot line: Griet, having caught the attention of Vermeer, has upset the fragile cart that is the Vermeer household. Vermeer’s niggardly, unstable wife (Essie Davis) is in a suspicious rage. The drama hits a boil when van Ruijven commissions Vermeer to paint Griet alone.

The story plays out with an acceptable amount of tension. And the beauty of the film ” and of Johansson, who was probably instructed not to smile because of the effect it might have on the film crew ” is undeniable. But one can’t help thinking that “Girl With a Pearl Earring” has been rendered as a still life, rather than the more passionate movie it might have been.

‘Monsieur Ibrahim’ and ‘The Station Agent’

“Monsieur Ibrahim” suffers from no such restraint of spirit. The French film, set in the Paris of the early 1960s, represents the return to the spotlight of Omar Sharif.

This is not the suave Sharif of “Doctor Zhivago.” Here, Sharif stars as the title character, an aged grocer in a marginal Parisian neighborhood. But Mr. Ibrahim has not lost his zest for life. With a sparkle in his eye, he repeatedly tells his young acquaintance Momo, “I am happy, because I know my Koran.”

“Monsieur Ibrahim” focuses on the unlikely friendship between Ibrahim and the troubled neighborhood teen Momo (played impressively by Pierre Boulanger, making his film debut). But there is also a vital subtext that speaks to one of today’s primary issues: that the Muslim religion can be the basis for acts of beauty and generosity. It is a reassuring message. It is a magical film.

Unlikely friendships are also at the heart of “The Station Agent.” In writer-director Tom McCarthy’s debut, three souls ” a reclusive dwarf (Peter Dinklage), a damaged artist (Patricia Clarkson) and a motor-mouthed hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) ” come together around an abandoned New Jersey rail depot. Their story unfolds with gentle humor and insight into how staying connected keeps us happy ” or at least sane.

“Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “Monsieur Ibrahim” and “The Station Agent” are among the films presented this week at Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings. “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is set for Wednesday, Dec. 31, at 5:30 p.m.; “Monsieur Ibrahim” is Monday, Dec. 29, at 5:30 p.m.; and “The Station Agent” is Thursday, Jan. 1, at 5:30 p.m. All are at Harris Hall.

Academy Screenings are presented daily through Jan. 2. For a complete schedule, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.

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


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