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Movie Review: "Girl With A Pearl Earring"

This movie has been out for a while, and I actually missed two free screenings of it in December and January, but I really wanted to see it, so before stuff like "50 First Dates" squeezes it totally out of the theaters, I hied down to the Esquire on Oak Street tonight.

Johannes Vermeer's painting, from which this film gets its title, is on display at The Royal Cabinet of Paintings in Mauritshuis, in The Hague, The Netherlands, and someday I'd like to see it. But the story that this film is based on is fictional -- from a novel by Tracy Chevalier. No one really knows who the model is who Vermeer painted in 1665.

The movie takes you right into the times, as the girl (with the odd name "Griet"), played marvelously by Scarlett Johansson, who ought to have received an Oscar nomination for this role (and who, incidentally, at age 19 has already established herself as one of the top actresses of today), suddenly is swept from her middle-class family and forced to work as a maid for the Vermeer family, haughtily ruled over by Vermeer's overbearing mother-in-law and wife. The film shows how poorly servants were treated, even by the children in the family, one of whom in particular you'd like to throttle. Oddly, at one point you get the strong feeling that this child is going to suddenly become a hero to Griet, after tormenting her, but it never happens.

Slowly, Griet, who probably doesn't speak 100 words in the entire film, is drawn into the confidence of Vermeer (played understatedly by Colin Firth), who paints for money only, not really caring much about his subjects, only that his wealthy patron Van Ruijven, played overstatedly -- and that's a compliment, incidentally, not a complaint -- by the terrific English actor Tom Wilkinson, who's almost unrecognizable behind his long hair and goatee. Vermeer's wife is played as a selfish, catty woman and you find yourelf wondering why he even bothers staying with her, then it becomes evident that it's the wife's family who provided most of his support and the patron who pays him well for his paintings.

And then, so subtly you almost don't see it yourself, Vermeer realizes that he might have a great subject for a painting in Griet, but there are other intrigues here, including the desire of Van Ruijven for her... but she's got a young man friend, who you wonder why she doesn't run off with, as he has a profession (he's a butcher's son), and a way for her to have a real life.

It's not really made clear exactly why Griet has to leave her family; there appears to be some issue with her father's health, and perhaps he cannot work so that they need the money she can earn, but this is almost glossed over.

That's about the only complaint I have with this lush film, which did get nominations for costume design and cinematography. It ought to have gotten one for the music too, and I think I might even run out and buy Alexandre Desplat's soundtrack, recorded by the Hollywood Studio Orchestra.

This is a good film to have watched as a prelude to the Oscar telecast this Sunday, and perhaps if I have some time I'll post some of my choices for those awards.

Oh, and I got another stinking parking ticket. The city has choice ways of hiding the parking regulation signs, and that's what happened here. This one, I think I have a fair chance of fighting off.

AYRating: *** 1/2