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For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.

photo caption:
INFINITE ATTENTION TO DETAIL: Johannes (Colin Firth, left) strives to get every detail perfect for his portrait of Griet (Scarlett Johansson), the subject of the famous painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring."end caption.


Speculative Soap Opera Inspired by Vermeer Masterpiece

Kam Williams

Not much is known about Johannes Vermeer except that he spent his entire life in Delft, being baptized on Halloween in 1632, marrying Catharina Bolnes in 1653, and leaving behind 11 children and a portfolio of 35 paintings. Alhough he died penniless in 1675, and his widow had to declare bankruptcy the following year, Vermeer has at least been appreciated posthumously over the ages and his works presently hang in the Louvre, The Hague, the Metropolitan, Buckingham Palace, and other leading museums and private collections around the world.

Nonetheless, this Dutch Master has remained a mystery even though his paintings have been immortalized. It should come as no surprise that talented tale spinners might be tempted to weave intriguing webs from the scant details available about his life, especially since similar speculations have spawned a cottage industry of historical fiction revolving around renowned artists.

In recent years the genre has enjoyed a renaissance, as evidenced by novels like Rembrandt's Eyes (1999) by Simon Schama and Tulip Fever (2000) by Deborah Moggachand, both of which were about Rembrandt. Even Vermeer has been the subject of such imaginative flights of fancy, including Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. (1999) and The Music Lesson (2000) by Katharine Weber.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is both the title of one of Vermeer's best-known oils and the name of the 2001 best-seller by Tracy Chevalier. Written from the perspective of the anonymous young girl who sat for that beguiling painting, Ms. Chevalier presents a plausible picture of the Netherlands in the 17th Century while fashioning a richly-textured relationship between the artist and his subject from the paucity of known facts.

Unfortunately, first-time director Peter Webber's screen version takes too many liberties with the truth, venturing way beyond the possible to the highly improbable. The result is an entertaining, but inauthentic, adaptation, a production which reads more like a Hollywood teensploit than a Holland historical epic.

Scarlett Johansson stars in the title role as Griet, a 17 year-old forced by her father's sudden blindness to take a position as a maid for the Vermeer family. It's hard to believe that this is the same actress who generated so much Oscar buzz for Lost in Translation (2003) and Ghost World (2000). Johannson appears to have been underestimated in this case by a director reluctant to ask any more depth of her than an open-mouthed, vacant stare.

The story opens in 1665 with Griet negotiating her way across Delft's commercial district towards her first day on the job at the Vermeers'. Like the most infuriating, infantile chick flick, the film proceeds to tip its hat by having her and the beefy butcher's son (Cillian Murphy) lock eyes for a lingering moment, an early signal that there's more sparks in store for this pair.

Meanwhile, Griet must toil, Cinderella style, for a dysfunctional medieval family made up of moody perfectionist Johannes (Colin Firth), his jealous wife (Essie Davie), his mercurial mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), his leering and lecherous patron (Tom Wilkinson), the 11 kids, and the rest of the help. The movie takes its own sweet time to develop, which might not have been a problem were it not simultaneously telegraphing its punches.

Devotees of uneventful mood pieces undoubtedly will savor Girl with a Pearl Earring's deliberate pacing, though only soap opera fans are likely to buy the plot twists. Besides the Studio Painting 101 primer on the lost art of mixing colors, this endurance test is akin to watching paint dry, literally and figuratively. Good (2 stars). Rated PG-13 for slight sexual content.

end of review.

For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.


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