Director Peter Webber's film offers a complex, satisfying adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel of historical fiction about the Dutch painter whose life remains shrouded in mystery.
Equal to his direction is Ben van Os' production design and Eduardo Serra's cinematography, which bring to Vermeer's world the similarly icy calm Serra gave Michael Winterbottom's memorable Jude.
Scarlett Johansson plays the woman whom Chevalier imagines may have sat for Vermeer's most famous painting, "The Girl With a Pearl Earring." The actress was undoubtedly cast as much for the blank canvas quality she has brought to roles in Ghost World and Lost in Translation as she was for the milky expanse of her moon face and ripe pink lips. Griet (Johansson) floats through the film as a beautiful, pale question mark, the perfect projection for the fantasies of the men around her.
At the opening of the film, Griet leaves her parents to work as a maid for the well-to-do but dysfunctional Vermeer family in their Delft home. The Vermeer home is presented as a series of dramatic stages. The lower level houses the kitchen and laundry where Griet, a plump housekeeper and the Vermeer children work and play. On the second level, the domestic lives of painter Vermeer (Colin Firth) and his wife Catharina (Essie Davis) are watched over with hawk-like attention by Catharina's brittle mother Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), who also acts as a kind of manager for Vermeer's painting career.
In the upper reaches, closest to that opalescent light and removed from grubby domesticity, is the painter's atelier where he creates the works that have made him one of history's most revered artisans of light, color and a syrupy quiet. Girl establishes Griet's suitability to that rarefied atelier in occasionally strained moments, like the scene in which she is able to detect the variations of color in clouds that a less poetic soul would simply call "white." Having proven her sensitivity, Griet is elevated from her underground sleeping quarters and installed in the light-drenched attic.
Girl flirts with a romantic exchange between Vermeer and Griet, but thankfully never wastes its energies on that conventional idea. Instead, as more and more details of Vermeer's career emerge, it becomes clear that Griet is a means of illustrating some of the class hierarchies in the 17th-century art world. That cruel hierarchy is exemplified by Vermeer's wealthy patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), the kind of ogre familiar to mustache-stroking landlords in old melodramas.
Crude, rapacious Van Ruijven clearly views not only Vermeer's paintings but the entire Vermeer family as his property. He jokes lasciviously about plucking the bloom off Vermeer's preadolescent daughters and seems to consider raping Griet as his due. In lieu of that, he commissions a painting of the girl, wearing Catharina's pearl earring.
Girl does much to puncture the nearly spiritual regard that often clouds the historical reality of how and why classical oil paintings were produced. Griet is one of art history's most titillating subjects: the ripe, come-hither virgin. And like the pinups of contemporary skin magazines, she is an inert object traded between men (underscored in an off-key scene where Vermeer, sounding like Paul Snider in Star 80, instructs Griet to lick her lips for her close-up).
Webber offers the kind of insight into the complex sexual politics of looking and the historic specificity of artistic patronage in 17th-century Holland that make for a satisfying, provocative film.
Unfortunately, Girl can also bungle opportunities to enlarge its critique. A chance to investigate the justified rage wife Catharina feels at being confined to bovine baby-machine status (14 little Vermeers issued forth from her loins) while virginal Griet is elevated to an eternal, exquisite artistic subject is disappointingly squandered. Instead, Catharina is just another conventional, hysterical, jealous wife.
But Girl's virtues certainly outweigh such faults.
One of the film's greatest triumphs is its scrupulous subtlety and calm, a wonderful translation to film of the restrained emotions of Vermeer's paintings.