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Living in the Netherlands close to Delft, where Vermeer lived probably all his life (although many details of his life, including his precise date and place of birth remain unknown), I have a natural interest in him and admiration for his work.
Top: Vermeer's wife Catharina (Essie Davis) and the local art collector Pieter van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson).
My first disappointment in the film came right at the beginning, when I felt that Vermeer and his wife should, as in the book, have been seen to visit Griet's home when considering taking her into service, as it was on that occasion that they had witnessed her creation of the chopped-vegetable pie-chart.
The book gives us many more facts than the film; for example, about Griet's father's accident when the tile-firing kiln exploded leaving him blind and injured, such that he could no longer practise his trade and hence necessitating that Griet go into service to save the family from starving. I now realise that in film, emotions are immediately visible and often make facts unnecessary. The intricate descriptions in the book give us a vivid mental impression of the thoughts and feelings of the characters and of the life of the household, whilst leaving our imagination to create our own actual images.
Top: Paul the butcher (Geoff Bell) and his son Pieter (Cillian Murphy) selling meat at a local market. Here again, the book explains more about the significance of the star in the centre of the market square, which incidentally disappeared just a few months after the shooting of the film, when the square was repaved in preparation for the funeral of Prins Bernard in December 2004 (such a shame after so many years, but at least the film made it in time!). The book fast-forwards ten years to Vermeer's death, and we see Griet happily married to Pieter, the butcher's son, with two children, her mother finally able to eat meat, and her father having passed away.
In conclusion, the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” painting is a masterpiece, and both the subsequent book and the period-drama film are great! When in 1996 an exhibition of 22 of Vermeer's 35 known paintings came to the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, the country was abuzz with the name “Vermeer”, and such was the demand that it was all but impossible to get an appointment to see it! Bottom: Griet (Scarlett Johansson) cleaning the windows of Vermeer's studio, just before their eyes meet. Having enjoyed the book so much, I was ready to be disappointed by the film, and to be honest, I was just a little bit. Vermeer had recognised her eye for artistic detail, which he had seen in nobody else, especially not in his wife, who had little appreciation of art and was rather clumsy, as typified by her knocking the vegetable-knife off the table and sending it spinning across the floor. The film also tells us nothing of her brother who suffered terribly during his arduous apprenticeship, nor of her sister who was devastated at Griet's departure and at her subsequent distancing from her family.


Here, another difference between book and film: in the film he tenderly pierces her ear himself at her request – in the book she has had advance warning and has pierced her ear herself with the help of numbing clove oil (less painful but less romantic) and the tenderness is further impaired by his insistance on her painfully inserting the other earring, which couldn’t be seen – his obsession for his work making him selfish. Maybe we do need to be rather thoughtful, patient viewers to appreciate all of these things, but perhaps that also applies to appreciating Vermeer's paintings! Bottom: Vermeer (Colin Firth) putting the pearl earring on Griet (Scarlett Johansson), shortly after piercing her ear. Despite many of the scenes having been filmed in Luxembourg, Belgium, and Venice in order to show life lived at the water's edge, using the canals for transportation, but also for so many other daily functions (Holland is too spick and span and would have required more set-building), it portrays perfectly how I imagine how the Dutch lifestyle would have been at the time. The star was important for Griet as she and her brother and sister had played and explored by following each point of the star. We learn that Catharina is forced by the lawyer handling the will to hand over the earrings to Griet, and how painful it is for her to comply. Alexandre Desplat's haunting music beautifully fills any otherwise silent moments, and the acting is superb. We don't have to choose between them; they complement each other and each excels in its own way. When Tracey Chevalier's book was published and available in the bookshops, copies flew off the shelves like hotcakes. However, having just watched it again on DVD, and again listening to the director's comments, I have revised my opinion and have concluded that I am not disappointed at all, so much so, that I feel inspired to write about it and to draw some comparisons between book and film. In the film, one glimpse of her father's cruelly disfigured face and hand tells us enough – no explanation is needed! Additional facts about Griet's family background would have hindered the unfolding, and her mother's tortured expression as she has to part with her daughter communicates all we need to know about the family's circumstances. In fact, the use of the earrings at all: quinttessential for the painting, fateful for Griet, bears witness to his selfishness. It features again at the end, as she stands in the centre wondering which direction to go to find her future. Griet also hears from one of the sons that his father had borrowed back the painting of her and had it by him as he died – all very emotional!


It goes without saying that Colin Firth is brilliant, his subtle smile captivating, but all of the actors are great!
I'm sure that the author and film director have mutual respect for one another, and it would be nice to imagine that Johannes Vermeer himself would also have had respect for both of these art forms, which highlight his genius and have brought his work to the attention of so many!
In the film, we get a glimpse of the vegetable arrangement and the spinning knife, but don't get to see the Master till much, much later when Griet has already been working in his house for several days. Of course, the film gives a hint of this aspect, but by being less expicit the romantic feeling is less impaired.
The film is open-ended: soon after Griet's departure, Tanneke comes, presumably to her house, and gives her a cloth containing the earrings. Of course, it is a fictional interpretation of Vermeer's life in which the author is entitled to exercise any amount of poetic licence.
Their first real encounter is in the studio and is a very significant moment in the film, coming after a big build-up. Griet just scrunches it up in her hands and the film ends by focusing on the painting itself, which cannot but be appropriate.
I think Vermeer would have approved of these women – most of his paintings are of house interiors including a woman. However, judging from the small number of works accomplished in his lifetime and the fact that he had a wife, mother-in-law and eleven children, plus the servants, to feed, I can well imagine that the women in his life would have preferred him to have churned out more pictures and might have been a bit frustrated at his obsessive reverence to his art, which they didn't understand and which slowed him down. For this reason I have the feeling that we could be seeing quite a true likeness both in the character of the real and fictional man, and in the lifestyle of a Dutch artist of the time. Before entering himself and seeing Griet reaching up to clean the windows, Vermeer lurks in the doorway silently watching her, and immediately we can sense the unspoken, forbidden chemistry between them – the perfect build up!



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