The 36th Masterpiece, May 14, 2004
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a richly textured movie in which
the atmosphere of 17th century Holland has been recreated with
artistic precision. Within this detailed melancholy fantasy,
various themes arise to make this story visually and
The Protestant daughter of a Delft tile painter (Griet) takes
a position as a maid in a Catholic family. Her father has lost
his sight in a kiln accident and she must find work to help
support her family. Vermeer's wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), is
in desperate need of help in her constant state of pregnancy.
Essie Davis gives a spectacular and often heart-wrenching
performance while Judy Parfitt is perfect as Vermeer's conniving
On the first viewing many of the characters may seem to be in
a trance, almost living out their lives in quiet desperation.
What they seek to express is often only portrayed by a glance or
an accidental touch. Griet is overpowered by Vermeer's chemistry
on more than one occasion and the movie is almost a thoughtful
portrayal of forbidden love steeped in a solitary stillness. The
sound track instantly captures the deepest part of your soul and
envelopes you in a fantasy of notes that are highly sensitive to
the changing scenes.
From the moment you see Griet peeling onions in a dank
kitchen, you know this is going to be an artistic movie. If you
love cooking scenes, this has memorable culinary preparation.
It wasn't until the second viewing that I realized she was
making a color palate out of the various vegetables. In fact, it
is very easy to miss a variety of significant details because
the scenes are dark and mysterious. After watching this movie
three times I realized how many details you miss if you only
watch this movie once. It is truly like a slow moving painting
that reveals the inner workings of a 17th century household. Of
course the focus is an art studio, which serves as an escape
from the harshness of life in Delft, Holland.
The Dutch Oven Cookbook
While Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) enjoys a studio filled
with light, the rest of the house seems dark and cloistered.
Only during the "birth feast" scenes do we begin to
appreciate the beauty of candlelight and the flickering of the
candles is sumptuously filmed.
Griet's choices and attitude towards life are unexpected and
therefore misunderstood by most of the characters. Vermeer's
wife and children display a hatred and jealousy that seems to
stem from their own view of the world. Griet truly does take on
the role of a Dutch Cinderella for much of the movie although
the prince is a much more realistic choice. Despite her
exhaustion from enduring menial tasks, she endures the daily
chores in order to experience the pleasures of occasionally
mixing paint in a sequestered setting.
Vermeer instantly recognizes Griet's potential, all while
being highly amused by her child-like appreciation of his
complex world. Even Vermeer's patron views the world as a
reflection of his own inner torments. He assumes Griet and
Vermeer are acting out their baser impulses. In fact, Griet
almost takes on the role of a sacrifice in order to help support
The almost surreal ear-piercing scene seems to be a pivotal
point in her change from maid to woman and also observe how
Vermeer holds his wife's hand after she tries to destroy a
painting. Both women seem to play occasional roles as the
sacrifice for their family's survival. Griet seems to find
comfort in the arms of local butcher boy Pieter all while her
heart is lost in an art studio. She seems to be unconsciously
seeking a higher existence all while realizing her heart may
never permanently live in the heaven of a highly aesthetic
This movie is one of the few literary adaptations that will
mysteriously cause you to want to go find the book and discover
all the secrets of the unexplained and often shadowy events
shown on screen and never fully explained. Oh, and if you turn
on the subtitles, you can read additional lines that cannot be
heard on the DVD.
Colin Firth's acting will steal your heart and there are rare
moments where you can actually imagine all the feelings and
desires of the characters. Brief moments of humor during the
"camera obscura" scene are a relief from the sheer
torture of unfulfilled desires.
I spent some time thinking about Griet's name. Grit can be
responsible for causing a pearl to form, although pearls do form
from food particles and other irritants. Grit is not far from
Griet and Griet is definitely a catalyst for the creation of a
physical pearl (the painting) all while almost literally
becoming a pearl cast before a swine. The scene of her hair
flowing about her shoulders also reminded me of Botticelli's
Birth of Venus.
While the butcher's son Pieter recognizes Griet as the pearl
he wants to possess, it is Vermeer who seems to recognize
Griet's ability to be the "grit" that will cause him
enough pain or inspiration to create salient art. He seems to
invite her into his shell/studio and there she is allowed to
create, inspire, experience, learn and dream.
While many may see the artist-muse relationship between Griet
and Vermeer as one filled with sexual tension, I see it more as
a relationship of mutual appreciation which leads to love. Griet
and Vermeer share a world they both understand. Together they
create enduring beauty and that in itself is intoxicating.
One of the most beautiful moments in this movie is when
Vermeer shows respect by not "casting" Griet in the
role of maid for his lecherous patron Van Ruijven. Not only does
he take financial risks to protect her reputation, he values her
presence in his life and literally tears up his house to find an
item she is accused of stealing.
Peter Webber has created a lasting work of art that could
almost be considered to be the 36th masterpiece.
~The Rebecca Review
Girl with a Pearl Earring