A portrait by Johannes Vermeer inspired a best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier, who imagined the relationship between the artist and his subject, not as a Shakespeare in Love-style romance but as a commentary on artistic imperatives and the creative process and the way we look at things. And power and money and sex.
Chevalier imagined that the girl in the painting was Griet (Scarlett Johansson), the daughter of a man who worked in the famous Delft tileworks until he was blinded in an accident. So she is hired out as a maid to the chaotic Vermeer household, where everything depends on the productivity of an artist who works very slowly and the whims of a patron who may be more interested in the model than the paintings.
Griet barely speaks. She wears the nun-like head covering of the era that hides her hair. She does what she is told and keeps to herself. But she notices things. She knows that she should not wash the windows in Vermeer’s studio because it will change the look of the light he is trying to capture. She knows that a prop should be moved to improve the composition of the painting. Vermeer (Colin Firth), not a person of words either, responds to the way she responds to the art. He asks her to help him mix his paints. He shows her how he uses a camera obscura to capture the images.
Vermeer’s patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), is drawn to Griet, too, but not for the way she responds but the way she does not respond. It is her reserve that captures his interest. And since his interest is vital to the survival of the Vermeer family, Vermeer’s steely mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) will do anything she can to keep him happy.
The movie superbly captures the shadows and lights of Vermeer’s Delft. Johannson’s face is as complex and haunting as the portrait of the anonymous girl she portrays. She is a marvel of delicate expression. When she must lick her lovely full lips she tells us volumes about Griet’s conflicts and longings. When at last she removes her headdress and we see her hair it is almost unbearably intimate and erotic.
But the movie is less successful at addressing some of the issues it raises about the other members of the household, including the clashes of art and commerce, sex and power, master and servant, parent and child. Griet’s resolution of her situation is clumsily handled, almost an afterthought. Perhaps the ultimate clash is between book and movie. Vermeer himself would understand the way that the images overpower the ideas. At the end, after being teased and seduced, we are at last allowed to gaze on the famous portrait itself, still more fascinating and more complete than any attempt to build upon it.
Parents should know that the movie has sexual references and situations and powerful erotic images.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Griet makes the choices she does and how in real life the painting made centuries earlier inspired the imagination of a writer to come up with this story. They might also like to talk about how this movie demonstrates that subtle glimpses can have more emotional and erotic power than our over-saturated media culture might expect. How did the film-makers use light and shapes to help create the sense of the world of Vermeer’s paintings?
Mature audiences who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Shakespeare in Love. They might also like to see some of the other films about artists, including Lust for Life and Surviving Picasso.