Scarlett Johansson got her big break impersonating a drawing in Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World," and now she's hoping to woo the mid-brow crowd playing a painting. Just when you thought movies based on video games were as derivative as it could get, along comes "Girl With a Pearl Earring": director Peter Webber adapts a novel by Tracy Chevalier based on the title-giving oil-on-canvas by Johannes Vermeer.
And so we find ourselves in Holland in 1665: canals and open markets, scruffy children and those strange white caps that hide the women's hair and seem like they belong on nuns. Griet (Johansson) is wearing one of them, and that's a shame because after all, wasn't it Gwyneth Paltrow's shining hair that made the similar period romance of creativity "Shakespeare in Love" such a success?
But Griet has to keep her hair under that cap because she's a maid, poor and downcast, beginning work at the Vermeer house when the film opens. Like Cinderella, she scours pans and silently takes abuse from the bratty children. Only occasionally, she has a good time with the butcher boy. When Vermeer, played by Colin Firth with daring Aragorn haircut, takes an interest in her, she begins to spend more and more time in his studio, where she finally sits for the painting in question.
Predictably, the art design and cinematography take their cues from Vermeer. The painterly compositions, period costumes, and mild light falling through thick glass windows look splendid. In its best moments, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" clue us in to the sense of the wonder that painting held in a world that wasn't awash in images. Yet I am reminded of the scene in "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" where Bugs and Daffy are being chased through the Louvre and run through famous paintings, adapting their look--except that "Girl With a Pearl Earring" isn't nearly as funny, or as exciting.
As good as Webber is with the images, the film aches for drama. The story behind the painting isn't all that thrilling. The tensions in the Vermeer house are interesting at first, but they lead up to a disappointing climax. Griet is never given a chance to act out, or even to speak out. "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" ends with a whimper, never having figured out how to let its hair down.