Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Modern period movies again

In my post on Sunday about Chariots of Fire, I mentioned that it had a much more authentic look than the period movies of the Hollywood studio system. Perhaps an even better example of this is the visuals of the 2003 movie Girl With a Pearl Earring, airing on August 27 at 8:35 AM and 2:00 PM ET on IFC.

The movie takes its genesis from a 1660s painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, giving a highly speculative answer to the question of just who the subject is in his painting Girl With a Pearl Earring. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows the answer to this question, and there's even an entire site dedicated to the painting. In the movie, based on a novel by writer Tracy Chevalier, the girl is presumed to be a maid in the Vermeer household named Griet (played by Scarlett Johansson). Not long after Griet starts working in the house, she finds that Vermeer (played by Colin Firth) has taken a liking to her, asking her to help with his paints. Apparently, this version of Vermeer was one randy bastard; he already had something like six children with another on the way. Burdened with a constantly pregnant wife, he trusts in Griet instead, which makes poor Mrs. Vermeer insanely jealous.

The story, according to scholars, is implausible at best, although it's not actaully a bad story. It would be perfectly fine if all the characters were fictional. However, there's a better reason to watch the movie, which is for the cinematography. The real-life Vermeer was highly interested in the play of light and shadow, effects which show up quite a bit in his paintings. The movie tries to reproduce this, and we get not only beautiful colors, but some excellent work with shades as well. Further, the film's portrayal of 17th century Delft, Holland, is visually a sight to behold. Life in the 17th century was not easy, even for people in the upper-middle class, which is where Vermeer (or at least Mrs. Vermeer) aspired to be. For the servants, it was a life of constant drudgery. The filmmakers do an excellent job of not romanticizing the 17th century, the way Hollywood studios would have done in the 1930s and 1940s.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is a moderately interesting movie about the 17th century wrapped around a silly love story. If you don't like the love story, turn the sound off and watch the visuals instead. You won't be disappointed.

No comments: