Original US release date: December 12, 2003
Production budget: $17,461,000
Worldwide gross: $31,466,789
Based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name, Girl with a Pearl Earring had a rather tumultuous journey to the big screen – far more tumultuous than is typical for low-budget independent Oscar bait such as this. Originally, Mike Newell was slated to direct with stars Kate Hudson and Ralph Fiennes. After Hudson chose to drop out, the film lost its funding. Eventually, new backers were found but Newell was no longer available. Peter Webber was hired as the new director and he was able to secure Kirsten Dunst for the female lead. Perhaps “secure” was a poor choice of wording, however, because Dunst also pulled out once her star rose in the wake of Spider-Man. In addition, Fiennes was also no longer available. Finally, Newell cast Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth as the lead and the production was off to the races.
After all of that work towards making the film happen, it unfortunately failed to make a profit (I’ve mentioned this before, but will repeat that conventional wisdom states that a film should gross approximately 2.5 times its budget in order to break even and maybe make a little money). It was well-received by critics and typically liked by audiences who saw it (it currently has a respectable 6.9 audience rating on IMDb), though it wasn’t the Oscar powerhouse that the studio and all involved were hoping it would be – scoring three nominations in relatively minor categories – and failed to even double its budget at the worldwide box office.
As I alluded to above, the film is an adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s fictional novel about the creation of the very real “Girl with a Pearl Earring” painting by Johannes Vermeer. Set in mid-seventeenth century Holland, Chevalier crafts a speculative tale about Vermeer’s (Firth) inspiration for the famous work, with director Webber placing Johansson in the role of Vermeer’s handmaid Griet. After being spied by one of Vermeer’s patrons, Pieter van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), van Ruijven commissions a painting of Griet from Vermeer, while simultaneously vowing to win the actual Griet for himself. All the while, Vermeer and Griet strain to hide the commission from Vermeer’s jealous wife Catharina (Essie Davis) and a judgmental society.
I had never seen the film before watching it for this column and, to be honest, I’m surprised it was as well-regarded by audiences as it was. Maybe the majority of those who have happened to see (and rate) it are also fortunately those who were naturally inclined to appreciate it. Still, considering the pacing of the film, I remain surprised as the story is a very slow burn. While every scene contributes to either the narrative, character development, or relationship building, it does so as methodically as possible. Many a moment are spent watching single characters wander around a room. Or maybe they’re just standing and . . . . pondering life. At times, it can be trying if one is looking at it from a certain perspective of just wanting to get to the point.
I suppose you’re wondering what the opposing perspective might be. The opposing perspective requires the ability to see outside of oneself and one’s own existence. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a period piece taking place nearly 400 years ago. Life was different. People were different. Interactions were different. Conversations were different. Yes, the pacing of the film is slow, but I can’t claim it to be anything outside of authentic (based on works and relics from the time; I’m not that old). In our age of constant stimulation and immediate gratification, it’s easy – and perhaps even automatic – for many to see any other way of life as “boring” or “uneventful”. That is certainly a choice that one is able to make as a viewer. Even I was somewhat susceptible to that way of thinking at times, as I waited for the story to truly hook me with some defining moment.
This isn’t that story, and that’s okay. It might not be for everyone, but it’s still okay. Four-hundred years ago, even more so than today, people were secretive and wore metaphorical masks. Today, one may be judged for being themselves. In the mid-sixteen-hundreds, they were downright ostracized. Johansson, in particular, was required to truly grasp this idea in order to provide the film with an appropriate performance and convey Griet’s internal conflict to the audience.
Griet is doing nothing more than trying to live her life and do her job. Suddenly, her job has positioned her as the object of one man’s unwanted desire and one woman’s hatred. And throw in the uncertainty regarding where Vermeer, himself, stands and life is far more complicated than Griet desires it to be. To compound the issue, Griet isn’t even allowed to react as she wishes or to express her own feelings. For all intents and purposes, she doesn’t have the luxury of maintaining her own identity. That’s a hallmark of the time and place in which this story is set. Had Johansson not been able to step outside of her own existence and comprehend this, her performance would have been completely off the mark. Her timid, yet resonant, turn is entirely due to her ability to see the truth of the situation and of her character.
For those viewers who can do the same, Girl with a Pearl Earring makes for an easy recommendation. It’s authentic, it’s raw, and its themes are timeless. For those who have no desire to gain an understanding of, or to be exposed to, any time or culture outside of their own, don’t torture yourself. Even in the case of the former, the film could be a little tighter and more effervescent. But for a sensible what-if? tale around the creation of an artistic masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring is worth a watch.
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