Movie review: Girl with A Pearl Earring directed by Peter Webber

Release year: 2003
Screenplay: Olivia Hetreed


Griet: Scarlett Johansson
Johannes Vermeer van Delft – Colin Firth
Catharina Vermeer, wife of Johannes – Essie Davis
Pieter, young butcher – Cilian Murphy
Maria Thins (mother-in- law of Vermeer) – Judy Parfitt
Pieter Van Ruijven (rich patron of Vermeer) – Tom Wilkinson) 


Griet is a shy girl living in the Dutch Republic in 1665. Her father, a Delft ware painter, has recently gone blind so he is unable to work any longer. Consequently, Griet is sent to work as a maid in the unhappy, chaotic and impoverished household of the painter Johannes Vermeer where everything depends on the productivity of the master of the house. Who is rather slow in his ‘production’. He is an artist, right? Still he has six brats, a wife and a mother-in-law under one roof; the seventh bundle of joy is on its way…

Griet works hard, almost wordlessly, as she occupies the lowest position in a harsh hierarchy, where even one of the Vermeer’s children, the devilish Cornelia, treats her spitefully. On a routine shopping trip outside the house Griet meets a butcher’s son, Pieter, who is quickly taken with her. However the girl is slow to return his affections. I might risk stating she has other problems on her mind.

As Griet cleans Vermeer’s studio they become casually acquainted. Vermeer starts to appreciate Griet’s company, he even gives her lessons in mixing paints and other tasks, taking care to keep this secret from his thin-lipped wife, who would react very jealously if she found out that her husband was spending more time with Griet than with his own constantly enlarging family. In contrast, Vermeer’s pragmatic mother-in-law, Maria Thins, sees Griet as useful to Vermeer’s career because the girl can make the arduous work of finishing a painting quicker. Vermeer’s rich patron Van Ruijven notices Griet on a visit to the Vermeer household and asks the painter if he will give her up to him to work in his own house, a situation which ruined a previous serving girl. Vermeer refuses, but accepts a commission to paint a portrait of Griet for Van Ruijven. 

A merry company and one busy servant girl…

As Vermeer secretly works on the painting, which is going to become one of the most recognizable portraits of the world, Catharina’s growing jealousy of Griet becomes apparent. While Griet suffers through her fascination with Vermeer and his masterful work, she also has to fend off Van Ruijven’s attempt to rape her. Soon afterwards, Catharina’s mother summons Griet, hands over her daughter’s pearl earrings and instructs Griet to finish the painting while Catharina is away for the day. At the final painting session Vermeer pierces Griet’s earlobe so she can wear one of the pearl earrings for the portrait. Frustrated girl goes out, looks for Pieter and gives the boy a very tangible proof of her affections. Pieter proposes marriage, but she sadly turns him down. Then Griet returns the earrings to Catharina’s mother.

Catharina discovers that Griet used her earrings; furious she accuses her mother of complicity and orders Vermeer to show her the painting he and Griet have been working on. Heartbroken that Vermeer does not consider her worthy of being painted that way, Catharina tries but fails to destroy the painting, then banishes Griet from the house forever. Vermeer cannot find the strength to object so Griet is forced to leave the house.

Later, Griet is visited by the cook from the house, who comes bearing a gift: a sealed packet containing the blue headscarf she wore in the painting, which is wrapped around Catharina’s pearl earrings.

My impressions: 

Life sucks and life of a penniless girl sucks doubly. Unfortunately some films which are supposed to be good, intelligent and interesting sometimes suck too. If I had to assess this movie in three words I would say: beautiful, athmospheric, dull. Hadn’t I read the novel of Tracy Chevalier it was based on before watching I doubt I would have understoood the plot or enjoyed it at all.

This movie had all the makings of a big, fat hit – it tells beautifully a mesmerizing story (although fictional) of creating one of the greatest and the most mysterious portraits in the history of art; a portrait which is as famous as Mona Lisa but, at least according to me, far more beautiful. The cast is strong, the location- wonderful, the costumes – awesomely realistic, some scenes absolutely breathtaking…still overall the film is also emotionally disengaging. Almost strangely so. 

Yes, my dear, it’s art and you have to suffer…no excuses.

Firstly I am sad to say there is very little character development or character at all, in every aspect of the film. Firth’s Vermeer is never explored properly; he is simply a man that likes to paint and does it better than others. The movie never tries to explain what moves him or what he is thinking regarding Griet, his art, his family, his patron or anything else. Furthermore, his associations with his wife, children and mother-in-law are never given much treatment; in the first few minutes we are handed the obvious fact that things are not too well in the household but we don’t know why. There is just one pointer – too little money, too many kids to feed – but the director never explores the fact that Vermeer became a Catholic as an adult and he married into money but couldn’t keep the fortune, let alone enlarge it. 

Mother-in-law doing business…the only sensible person
in the whole household.

I suppose too much was deducted from the original story, written by Ms Chevalier. Only if you read the book you would know that Griet was chosen by Vermeer deliberately (I don’t want to spoil you here so I won’t say anything else) and you would know the meaning of several symbols, scattered around the movie helter-skelter, like that huge compass rose, adorning a square where Griet stands twice, thinking and deciding what to do with her young life. Only the book would convey the real meaning behind the painted tile Griet gets from her father as a good-bye gift and why the fact that it was broken by the evil Cornelia was so meaningful for the poor maid. Also the book provides a much finer, far more nuanced ending than the movie where Griet’s resolution of her situation is handled clumsily, almost as an afterthought. Once again in the ultimate clash between the book and the movie the latter loses spectacularly although nominally it should have much more to offer.

Final verdict: 

Visually it is undoubtedly a feast but when it comes to the plot you can feel as if you were in the middle of a desert. Do yourself a favour and read the book by Tracy Chevalier first – although that novel is not perfect either after the lecture everything in the movie will really make far more sense. You can even enjoy it like the portrait of our beautiful unknown…

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