From its opening shot of a pair of hands methodically slicing gemlike pieces of vegetables, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" never strays from its chief mission: to create beautiful, painterly images with every single frame.
This it does, with a lustrous production design and attention to detail that allow viewers to sink voluptuously in its imagined world. But the movie's strengths also prove to be its weaknesses, as visual rapture continually trumps narrative drive. Carefully composed, worshipfully ritualized and scrupulously self-conscious, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" unfolds as a series of meticulous tableaux vivants, but like those parlor pastimes, it lacks physical verve and a compelling emotional charge.
Adapted from Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" stars Scarlett Johansson, late of "Lost in Translation," as a servant named Griet in 17th-century Delft, Holland, who goes to work for the painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Plunged into a troubled household run by Vermeer's bovine, peevish, eternally pregnant wife (Judy Parfitt), Griet over several months wins the painter's trust, eventually becoming his atelier assistant, muse and model for the eponymous painting, Vermeer's most famous and famously mysterious portrait.
The entire story is Chevalier's conjecture, of course, a fanciful and ultimately polemical piece of feminist revisionism about women's historically endless capacity to suffer for men's art. (The implication is that Griet has the eye and sensitivity to be a great painter herself, were it not for the politics of class and gender.) Much of the film transpires silently, with Griet and Vermeer exchanging meaningfully pained glances, their fingers barely touching as they mix paints together. Shot and lit to approximate Vermeer's glowing canvases (one scene even looks as if it was filmed on a convex mirror), "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is the ultimate portrait of erotic love as an intellectual exercise, the meeting of two minds rather than bodies. As such, it's essentially a cerebral experience, and one that wants to have its politics both ways: Griet is the victim of male manipulation, on the part of both Vermeer and his odious patron (Tom Wilkinson), but she also only comes alive under the male artist's gaze.
Johansson bears an eerie resemblance to the girl in the painting, and her expressive eyes and puckered lips make her gorgeous to behold, even with her hair skinned back under the signature 17th-century Dutch cap. Director Peter Webber makes a confident if torpid debut here, although his background as an editor is barely in evidence in the course of the film's long, languid scenes.
But more troubling than any narrative limitations of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is something more inchoate having to do with the way cinema -- more than fiction or any other medium -- can appropriate and colonize the visual imagination. Nowhere is this more evident than when Vermeer commands Griet to lick her lips before posing for the titular portrait -- a commission, as Chevalier's story has it, of the leeringly threatening patron. The moment is creepy, not because of its sexual undercurrent but because this is the story we want to tell ourselves about an otherwise tantalizingly elusive work of art. By this time, the film's fetishistic treatment of Griet and her world has become almost unseemly, and when she finally strikes the famous pose, it plays like a highbrow, literary version of the blockbuster money shot.
"Girl With a Pearl Earring" culminates, appropriately enough, on the lingering image of Vermeer's actual painting, a conclusion that serves only to remind viewers of how superfluous the preceding playacting and speculation have been. With luck, even the most lambent visual seductions of the screen will never supplant the enigmatic power of the real thing.
Girl With a Pearl Earring (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some sexual content.