Based on Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 historical novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring is a film where nothing much happens. Colin Firth’s Johannes Vermeer, a 17th century artist, takes a shine to Scarlett Johansson as maid Griet, igniting a fierce jealousy in his wife Catharina (Essie Davis) and that’s about it. Alakina Mann, the creepy Anne from The Others, is here only as onlooker, watching the highs and woes of Griet’s life from behind curtains and in doorways.
The brilliant Cillian Murphy and Tom Wilkinson are both present but, unfortunately, neither offer memorable roles. Tom is cast as the film’s villain but, despite being giving some unnerving scenes, is never given room to develop and simply becomes a pest. Murphy’s servantile character meanwhile looks on whimsically after meeting Griet, hopeful to become her husband.
Slight tension comes in short bursts and these centre around the relationship (or lack of) between Vermeer and Griet. As he teaches her the intricacies of painting she becomes his subject and he demands increasingly more from her while she mutely surrenders. Although they share on-screen chemistry it sometimes feels a little forced and consequently neither quite manages to know what to do with it.
The pearl earring is, of course, part of a pair which, troublesomely for Griet, belong to Catharina. Enduring the pain of having only one ear pierced she helps Vermeer complete his work before being banished by his wife when their work is exposed. Disappointingly Vermeer does nothing to stop this, making the whole film seem both a little futile and a bit of a waste of time.
Peter Webber is applaudable in the director’s chair and the cinematography neatly echoes Vermeer’s work but the story is never fully engaging. There are several notable differences between the book and film and this may only help to distance the movie further from audiences. Its set pieces are lavish and believable but it fails to live up to its peers in the historical genre.
It’s tagline may be ‘beauty inspires obsession’, but, disappointingly, it also seems to inspire a mediocre film.
Best performance: Colin Firth as Vermeer.
Best bit: The worry about getting caught.