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The likeness is uncanny: Johansson in Girl With a Pearl Earring.

A Perfect Vision
By Ann Morrow

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Directed by Peter Webber

‘The illusion is perfect,” declares Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). The wealthy merchant is speaking of a painting he commissioned from Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) but the same can be said of Girl With a Pearl Earring, the entrancing screen adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel. A speculative imagining about the titular portrait (the model remains a mystery), the film is as beautifully composed as a Dutch Old Master, and as replete with tactile depths. Although the story deftly conjures a fictional muse for Vermeer’s masterpiece, a refined scullery maid named Griet (Scarlett Johansson), the film is not about her. Nor is it about Vermeer, of whom very little is known. It is simply, and hypnotically, about the escalating events that lead to the creation of a portrait that will fascinate onlookers for centuries.

As anyone who has seen the movie version of the portrait knows, Johansson is physically astonishing as the Girl. She’s just as luminous as Griet, who is modest, spirited, and somewhat enigmatic—all qualities that can be deduced from the actual portrait. Griet is sent from her respectable but destitute family to work for the Vermeer household in Delft. The year is 1665, and the unruly domicile is headed by Vermeer’s formidable mother-in-law, Maria Thins (classical actress Judy Parfitt). Maria wheedles commissions from the uncouth Van Ruijven to keep food on the table for the artist’s numerous children and continually pregnant wife, Catharina (Essie Davis). Vermeer is practically an apparition in his own house (Firth’s brooding romanticism is crucial). The put-upon artist is submissive in domestic matters but quietly ruthless when it comes to his art. When his wife sends Griet to the apothecary to buy medicine on credit, Vermeer has her secretly purchase blue powder for paint. Later this lapis blue will appear as the Turkish head wrap Griet wears in the portrait.

Bourgeois Catharina is barred from Vermeer’s attic studio, an edict that opens the door, literally, for Griet to become acquainted with the master: She cleans the studio. After Vermeer realizes he has an appreciative, sensitive audience for his work, he assigns Griet the painstaking job of mixing his paints. When he demonstrates to her how to grind the precious ingredients into pigment, the moment is infused with an underlying eroticism worthy of the Brontes. In the hushed, sunlit studio, Griet is acolyte to Vermeer’s mastery of light and space. But in the vexing tumult downstairs, Catharina grows increasingly jealous of Griet, Maria imperiously confides in her, and Van Ruijven lusts after her (Wilkinson is pungently loutish).

Fortunately for art lovers, the book was optioned for the screen before it became popular, and thus landed in the uncompromisingly artistic hands of unknown director Peter Webber, whose inspiration came from the artist’s own work. Rapturously lit and subtly, often symbolically expressive (courtesy of the incomparable cinematographer Eduardo Serra), the film utilizes the barest minimum of narrative elements. It needs to be observed rather than merely watched. The story unfolds largely within the confines of the house, as is appropriate for an artist who concentrated on interior domestic scenes. The re-creations of 17th-century Dutch culture are seductively enveloping, yet every artifact serves a purpose, such as the Elizabethan ruff that Maria wears, announcing her sovereignty over the household.

Despite its placid, burnished surface, Girl with a Pearl Earring hums with interest. Notice the mutilated hand of Griet’s blind father, once a tile glazer before a terrible accident plunged the family into poverty. Notice the care Griet takes in arranging vegetables or setting a table; she’s as methodical as Vermeer. Instead of the expected plunge into a torrid, ill-fated fling between master and servant, the film aims for something more transcendent. Vermeer’s heated response when faced with Griet’s possible dismissal—and a return to his isolated labors—is as passionate as an illicit embrace. It’s Van Ruijven’s lecherous interest in Griet that compels Vermeer to make her the subject of a portrait, and therefore keep her, for a time anyway, in his studio.

Timid, taciturn, and as deferential as her lowly status requires, Griet is boldly confident when it comes to her sense of aesthetics. She has the nerve to remove a heavy chair (a favorite prop of the artist’s) from the composition of a work-in-progress, a critique that Vermeer approves of. As their awareness of each other grows, Griet is pulled deeper into the artist’s orbit, despite being courted by the handsome butcher’s boy (Cillian Murphy). The film’s hypothesis is that the beguiling gleam in her eye in the portrait is the result of a sublime understanding.

The final image is of the real Girl With a Pearl Earring, which takes over the big screen as if the film itself were just a prologue. It’s the most rewarding ending imaginable for this hauntingly evocative experience.

Not Up to the Test

The Perfect Score
Directed by Brian Robbins

This anemic comedy about a group of underachieving high school seniors who hatch a plan to steal the answers to the Scholastic Aptitude Test is gutless. It isn’t funny, either.

Briefly, these are the film’s teenage antiheros: Anna (Erika Christensen), the class salutatorian, blanks out in the middle of her SAT; now she can’t get into Brown. Kyle (Chris Evans) has a high GPA, but is a lousy test taker. Matty (Bryan Greenberg) just isn’t very bright. Francesca (Scarlett Johansson) is a rebel who always wants to stick it to the man. Desmond (Darius Miles) is the basketball star with lousy grades. Roy (Leonardo Nam) is the school stoner. For reasons too dull to relate—obviously, they all need higher scores to get into their preferred college—they join forces to jack SAT creators ETS at their Princeton, N.J., headquarters.

The film tries to bring in relevant arguments against the SAT as an excuse. This is unconvincing. Almost as unconvincing as the jokes.

Director Brian Robbins, whose last film was Hardball, a just-OK inner-city Bad News Bears redux, again proves he lacks a sense of humor. The only laugh-out-loud funny moments in The Perfect Score occur in wild fantasy scenes interpolated into the action, as when Johansson does a convincing Carrie-Anne Moss bit in a Matrix parody. The cameos with Matthew Lillard (Scooby Doo’s Shaggy) as Kyle’s goofball brother are also amusing. These scenes seem like they come from another, better film though. There’s an even larger problem with The Perfect Score. Hardball, whatever its faults, had some grit. Score does not.

In the unhappy event you plan to see this flick, read no further: To really grasp how lame the story is, the dismal ending must be revealed.

If, perchance, the audience manages to suspend disbelief long enough to swallow that six teenagers could defeat the security system of a major corporation like ETS, they are then expected to endure Breakfast Club-style soul-searching and furtive flirting in the middle of the heist. The incongruity of this could be hilarious—Blake Edwards pulled off this kind of stuff regularly in the 1960s. The problem is, the absurdity of it is lost on the filmmakers. So, no laughs. And the script isn’t even John Hughes quality, so, no juicy melodrama.

The heist itself is incredibly sloppy. The most annoying of the group is nabbed, while the rest make off with the SAT answers. All decide, however, not to use them on the test. After committing multiple felonies and getting one of their friends locked up, they miraculously decide to do the right thing. Why? Because the experience of committing multiple felonies has facilitated their self-actualization. The pothead gives up pot. Kyle gives up on his dreams of Cornell, and “settles” for Syracuse. Anna feels free to dress like a slut.

It made me want to vomit. There’s a bright side, though—it’s unlikely that there will be more than a couple of films worse than this released in 2004.

—Shawn Stone


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