'Girl' with pouty stare

Staff WriterJanuary 30, 2004 

Maid Griet (Scarlett Johansson) turns out to be the muse for unhappy Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth).

Bereft of makeup, cheek color, even eyebrows, Scarlett Johansson looks paler than usual in "Girl With A Pearl Earring," the feature-film debut of British TV director Peter Webber. She's even paler than the rest of the cast -- and this is a movie purely inhabited by the palest white folk this side of a Sarah Vowell book signing.

Johansson has a look of queasiness throughout "Earring," as if she were told the only way to play a character from this movie's era -- 17th-century Holland -- is to appear as though she is on the verge of hurling at somebody's clogs. (If it weren't for the maid outfit she wears, she could pass as one of the psychic Pre-Cogs from "Minority Report.") Luckily, the character she plays is only homesick. However, audiences may feel unease with how passion-free this supposedly passionate story is.

Johansson plays Griet, a teen shipped off to work as a maid for a family of model Dutch snobs.

"Don't speak until you're spoken to," the lady of the house (Essie Davis) tells her after our heroine respectfully greets the uppity cow.

Griet is also told not to interrupt the work of the man of the house, who just happens to be enigmatic painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). With tousled hair and a constipated stare that makes him look as if he's recovering from a wicked bender, Vermeer makes it obvious he is an inmate in this creativity-stifling prison, forced to paint commission portraits for fat cats like obnoxious cad van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). When Griet washes the windows in Vermeer's studio one day, he sees a pose good enough for a portrait. With creative juices flowing again, Vermeer picks Griet to be his assistant, his muse and the closest thing he has to an intellectual equal in the house.

"Earring," based on a novel by Tracy Chevalier and adapted by Olivia Hetreed, is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Vermeer and Griet, who was the star of the stunning portrait this movie gets its title from. Thanks to Webber, cinematographer Eduardo Serra and production designer Ben van Os, "Earring" is just as beautiful as Vermeer's portraits. But it's also just as flat and listless. With so many bubbling, unspoken desires and emotions failing to come to a boil, the story ultimately chokes on its own stuck-up repression. Apart from tense glances, the slight touching of hands and the random finger brushing against a cheek to wipe away a tear, the relationship between Griet and Vermeer is nothing more than respectful -- they're comrades in metaphorical restraints.

The movie never hints that something more illicit, more romantic, more interesting could have blossomed -- even when everybody in the movie thinks something did blossom. (For audience members hungry to see something like that, the movie does give Griet a throwaway love interest, a butcher boy played by Cillian Murphy of "28 Days Later.")

Just like "Lost in Translation," that other art-house film for which Johansson is getting accolades, "Earring" serves the actress up as a youthful, milky object of desire for older men much too browbeaten by life and loved ones to act on it. I guess we should be thankful, not seeing another pretty young thing corrupted on the big screen by a tall order of middle-aged lechery.

If you want to see a movie where Johansson puts her pouty-lipped, smoky-voiced vampiness on display, you may have to go to the multiplexes this weekend and catch her in "The Perfect Score."

Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760 or clindsey@newsobserver.com.

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