The first time Griet, a peasant girl from the country, sees a painting by her new big-city employer, Johannes "Jan" Vermeer, she can hardly believe her big, brown, watery doe eyes. She gawks for several seconds, until Vermeer's stealthy, steely mother-in-law catches her and says, "You're not the first to forget your manners in front of his paintings." Her choice of words are odd but appropriate, for this is a culture where manners prevail over feeling, and where you simply don't take long ardent looks at a thrilling work of art.
Soon the sullen artist (Colin Firth) becomes as taken by the illiterate Griet (Scarlett Johansson) as she is with his work. She understands what he does and what it means, which displeases Vermeer's stern wife, who does not. His patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), keeps him on edge for his valuable commissions, dangling the names of other artists in front of him when they discuss what Vermeer will be assigned to paint next. He's passive in this process, but his mother-in-law -- who has grown accustomed to the privilege afforded her by the Vermeer household -- is the Swifty Lazar of 17th-century Netherlands. Eventually, of course, Griet becomes his subject, which leads him to create his 1665 masterpiece, "Girl with a Pearl Earring."
This is the stuff of romantic historical novels, and in Girl with a Pearl Earring, director Peter Webber adapts one by Tracy Chevalier. His movie is lusciously photographed by Eduardo Serra, with every cinematic image evoking the Dutch Masters gallery at the museum. But as so often happens in films about art, Webber's characters are just as equally trompes l'oeil: still, silent, silhouette people who stand (literally) for their particular emotions more than they realize them.
Girl with a Pearl Earring teaches us a little about how art worked in Vermeer's time, when artists created at the mercy of their patrons, unveiling their work at lavish affairs and scraping to pay the bills between jobs. (This artist has numerous children and a few servants, including one who's rather Rubenesque.) I rather enjoyed learning about such things as "Indian yellow," a color made from the urine of cows fed only mango leaves. ("You've glazed my wife in dried piss!" says the delighted Van Ruijven when he sees the work.)
Most of Webber's film has this edifying and uncomplicated Art History 101 pitch, as if an artist can speak no words beyond the oil on his canvas. Vermeer's muse doesn't have much more to say: She's understatedly timid, and almost Hassidic in her refusal to remove her cap and show Vermeer her stunning wavy brown hair. Van Gogh once said of his famous sunflowers, "I was drunk for three days to find that yellow." Still, I'd hate to see Girl with a Pearl Earring spawn a whole series of dramatic speculations on how great works of art came into being, unless it's a movie about a painting that promises more excitement, like The Last Supper, or maybe Guernica: The Movie.