by Allan Fish
(UK 2003 100m) DVD1/2
Yellow, blue and grey
p Andy Paterson, Anand Tucker d Peter Webber w Olivia Hetreed novel Tracy Chevalier ph Eduardo Serra ed Kate Evans m Alexandre Desplat art Ben Van Os cos Dien Van Straalen
Scarlett Johansson (Griet), Colin Firth (Johannes Vermeer), Tom Wilkinson (Peter van Ruijven), Judy Parfitt (Maria Thins), Cillian Murphy (Peter), Essie Davis (Catharina), Joanna Scanlan (Tanneke), Alakina Mann (Cornelia), Chris McHallem (Griet’s father),
There’s something about paintings and great art that has often daunted me, made me feel somehow insufficient, not merely my obvious inability to match the genius of the artist but perhaps not even perceptive enough to perceive his purpose, his intention. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the same is no more true of paintings than it is in the cinema, sculpture, architecture or any of the other arts. And Vermeer is one of those painters I have always admired most because he was fascinated with the same thing that fascinates film-makers; light. With the arguable exception of that other Dutch genius, Rembrandt, no other painter has so influenced cinematography since its inception than Johannes Vermeer. A daunting subject then, and made perhaps even more so by the success of the historical fiction it was based on, Chevalier’s immensely popular novel. I have to confess I have never read it and will probably always struggle to find the time, but if fans of the book have found the film less interesting – they always do, don’t they? – it remains a magnificent, seriously underrated achievement.
It’s 1665 in Delft, and a blind former tile-maker’s daughter is hired out of charity by the household of painter Johannes Vermeer as a housemaid, but she soon attracts the keen eye of the master. His motives seem ambiguous initially, there’s an undoubted erotic chemistry between them, but there’s something deeper, something misunderstood by harpy wife Catharina and gossipy housekeeper Tanneke. Griet is fascinated by what drives the master to create his paintings, and he sees in her a more than willing pupil to be his assistant and inspiration.
Some called it a still life, and one cannot deny it moves slowly, but so does the creation process. Vermeer, played by Firth as a sort of brooding 17th century equivalent of Byron, remains a cipher, for it’s not so much Vermeer as his genius that’s the subject, and he remains, in spirit and physically, in the background. It’s Johansson’s Griet who remains at the centre requiring a watchful performance of careful intensity and thoughtful composure. Eyebrows clipped, skin paler than alabaster, her eyes shot like pearls themselves with the camera seeking to replicate Vermeer’s steady hand.
Visually, as one might expect, it’s a triumph, with Serra’s photography worthy of a treatise in itself, a use of natural light that probably ranks amongst the greatest since Kubrick and Alcott’s Barry Lyndon. Ben Van Os’ sets are likewise stunning, a veritable feast for the eyes, a living, breathing city brought to life and worthy of all the praise that was justly heaped on it. And then there’s Alexandre Desplat’s score, its central theme reused on countless documentaries and intros since, capturing the mood of the piece miraculously without ever attempting to recapture the music of the period, an anachronism that perfectly illustrates the timelessness of the story. As for Griet, her fate is no happy ending, a couple of pearls for services rendered from a grateful artist to his one-time muse. Johansson herself looks uncannily like the immortal, unknown girl in Vermeer’s painting, but her greatest achievement is to make us see through her eyes, the beauty Vermeer has opened up to her. And then there she is, looking back at us from the wall, coming out of the gloom to look us in the eye and give Webber’s film the final masterstroke, both exulting the canvas and putting a mirror to it. To see a painting in a gallery, the lights are turned defiantly on, where to see a painting in a film the audience, too, comes out of the darkness, so that the girl comes out of the screen right at you in a way that even the 3-D tricksters of Cameron’s Avatar couldn’t dream to accomplish.