The subject of Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl With A Pearl Earring gazes out from the canvas with an expression as mysterious in its own way as Mona Lisa's smile. With her parted lips and steady gaze, she seems about to speak, or to flee. Is that wariness or assurance in the eyes beneath the makeshift turban that had no place in Vermeer's 17th-century Holland? Does she wear her exotic garb and famous pearl with pride or discomfort? Little more is known of Vermeer, who made his home in the bustling commercial center of Delft and made life behind Delft's doors the subject of his meager output. Adapting Tracy Chevalier's novel, Girl With A Pearl Earring seeks not so much to clear up the mysteries as to capture more moments of pregnant ambiguity where lives find their potential, and to show the unspoken codes that keep that potential in check. As the film opens, its eponymous heroine, beautifully played by Scarlett Johansson, seems incapable of her immortal expression, or even of looking anyone else in the eye. A Protestant among Catholics, a woman in a man's world, and a new servant in the established ranks of the busy, precariously prosperous Vermeer household, she keeps her hair covered and her head low. It takes time for her to develop any relationship at all with Vermeer (Colin Firth), and more time still for that relationship to blossom into something between infatuation and mutual admiration. When it does, Firth is struck by her beauty, but also by her instinct for color and composition, which has no outlet other than helping him. Making the transition from British television, director Peter Webber displays a great sense of understatement and a keen eye for careful framing, with cinematographer Eduardo Serra beautifully re-creating Vermeer's signature play of shadow and light. Within Pearl Earring's brisk running time, Webber sketches out the boundaries that money and tradition place around his characters' lives, and shows how far their dreams overshoot those boundaries. Conveying a wicked sense of entitlement, Tom Wilkinson plays Firth's patron as a man fully aware of the bottomless pit over which he dangles painter and subject alike, and equally aware that he need never speak of his power. Only the usually reliable Firth seems somewhat off, too much a brooding artist and too little a man. Yet this ends up working in the film's favor, keeping the mystery of Vermeer intact until a final, offscreen gesture gives his most famous model a melancholy dignity to match the shroud of immortality.
More from The A.V. Club