National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At the Movies
Issue Date:  January 9, 2004

Romance and Desire

'Girl with a Pearl Earring' shines; 'Something's Gotta Give' is coy look at love


Girl with a Pearl Earring will delight those who prefer their dramatic moments muted as well as those who love great paintings that have remained mysterious. Based on the carefully researched novel by Tracy Chevalier about the great 17th-century artist Johannes Vermeer and his model for the painting that provides its title, the movie is an advanced class in the use of light and color.

Documentarian Peter Webber’s first feature film, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is impressive in its presentation of Delft -- its canals, clothes, class divisions and social assumptions. He works well with a fine cast, and photographer Eduardo Serra captures their different faces with a subtlety that complements the paintings that dominate the film. Young Griet (Scarlett Johansson), who comes to work as a maid in the Vermeer household, is the radiant but soberly becapped daughter of a local tile maker who has become blind. The movie opens with her meticulously chopping and arranging vegetables for the last meal she will have in her own home. Soon she will bring such attention to detail and sense of order to Vermeer’s studio: Asked by her mistress to clean its windows, she worries that this may change the studio’s lighting. What is most remarkable is how, despite the strict class barriers of the time and the limited number of her spoken lines, Johansson is able through expression alone to convey Griet’s vulnerability, curiosity and intensity.

While laundering, cooking and running errands, Griet has to put up with the snobbery of Vermeer’s wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), the deliberate cruelty of one daughter, a despotic mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) and the artist’s womanizing patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). But Griet’s quiet beauty and instinctive response to color soon bring her to the attention of Vermeer himself (Colin Firth), who asks her to help mix his paints. The sequence in which he explains to her the mechanics of the camera obscura successfully conveys the repression that heightens their growing mutual attraction, though the subtlety of the relationship is undermined by the intrusive music of Alexandre Desplat.

Firth is impressive in suggesting the artist’s brooding, taciturn personality, but audience sympathy is inevitably with the besieged Griet. She modestly accepts the attentions of the handsome young butcher’s apprentice, Pieter (Cillian Murphy), and is initially reluctant to remove her cap when the painter insists he needs to see her face. The cascade of auburn hair tumbling down provides a major moment in the film, but Griet immediately covers her hair, grasping the blue and yellow cloths that are preserved in the famous painting.

The idea of an affair between artist and model has become such a cliché that responses to the movie may depend on whether the audience insists on a reductionist understanding of human relationships. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is satisfied with implying that Vermeer and Griet have learned from and come to care for each other despite their deep differences in class and religion. The film deliberately ends in ambiguity; those who would like to know more or dig deeper should turn to the book. For example, there is no attempt to convey the subtlety of the book’s conversation between Vermeer and Griet on the difference between Catholic and Protestant attitudes to painting. Nevertheless, by conveying the importance of art in preparing our responses to everyday life, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” suggests an underlying religious significance.

Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson star in "Something's Gotta Give."
-- CNS/Columbia Pictures

Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give will probably succeed on the star power of Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, but its prefabricated comedy shows little respect for its audience. The premise is that we will find hilarity in the very idea of sex between people approaching retirement age; the resulting vulgarity is coy rather than wholehearted.

Keaton’s ability as a comedienne comes through despite her thankless role as Erica Barry, a successful playwright who is divorced and living a somewhat lonely life in her Hamptons beach house. At the outset she seems overly flustered to return home to find 62-year-old Harry Sanborn (Nicholson) already there, invited for the weekend by her daughter Marin (Amanda Peet).

Although Harry prides himself on being a carefree bachelor who never dates any woman older than 30, he suffers a heart attack before he is able to have sex with Marin. At the hospital, the handsome young doctor (Keanu Reeves) gives Harry professional care but is far more impressed with Erica. He has seen all her plays, he gushes, and clearly hopes to see her again. On release from the hospital, Harry is placed in Erica’s house, since the plot requires her to get to know him better, and even calls for a disoriented Harry to stumble into her bedroom and see her naked.

Much of the predictable development could work as farce, but the director has no sense of timing and is too intent on making her main characters likable. Erica has to be seen to suffer, and even Harry -- though Nicholson gamely allows himself to be photographed in the hospital with a bare rear end -- has to mature and abandon his carefree womanizing. Meyers’s obligatory lines on how unfair life is to middle-aged women add nothing; much more successful is a simple walk of Keaton and Nicholson along the sand as she gathers pebbles.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

Quick Takes:

The Statement was a disappointment, since I had been impressed by Brian Moore’s novel about collusion between Pétainist war criminals and high-ranking French ecclesiastics after World War II. The movie centers its story on Pierre Brossard (Michael Caine), who is on the run not only from persistent young judge Annemarie Livi (Tilda Swinton) and Colonel Roux (Jeremy Northam), but from mysterious figures who are first wrongly assumed to be a Jewish group bent on revenge. The movie’s main problem is that Brossard shifts too easily from being an aging fugitive begging for divine assistance to an all-too-prepared killer. An acceptable cat-and-mouse story, “The Statement” fails to uncover the deeper dimensions of its material.

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2004

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