by Natasha Theobald
I am one of those women. You know the ones. Colin Firth can protest it all he wants, but I fell in love with him when he played Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice." For others who felt the same, this movie is a chance to rekindle a bit of the romance. Once again, Firth is a man full of passion repressed, a character living in a mannered time when the mere brush of a hand, flesh meeting flesh, could be positively scandalous. Once again, his eyes smolder with the inner life of a character suffering at the hands of love, if love it is, and desire. How's that for a recommendation?To my knowledge, little is actually known about the life of Vermeer (Firth), the painter of the portrait to which the title refers. Until fairly recently, he was not among the remembered figures of the time. Many of the paintings thought to be his are not signed, in fact, and fewer than forty have been found. The transfixing eyes of his subject, however, the girl glancing over one shoulder, a pearl dangling from her delicate lobe, have given birth to this imagining. The things that are known are included, for instance, the fact that the fella had a handful and then some of kids. The rest, I believe, is marvelous speculation and grand storytelling.
Griet (Scarlett Johansson) arrives at the Vermeer household to act as a second maid. The lady of the house, in name, is pregnant, and the many kids she already has are running around causing trouble. Her mother (Judy Parfitt) is the woman who has the real run of things. She influences the raising of the children, her son-in-law's career, and just about anything else. Griet spends long hours with the duties of the household, one of which is to clean Vermeer's studio.
The more time she spends in the studio, the greater interest she gains in the work done there. Vermeer notices her interest and gradually teaches her. She learns his methods. She learns to mix the paints. She becomes companion and helper to the man. She has an understanding of art and light, and she is taken with the talent to which she is witness. It is a meeting of the minds, if the mind creates art, though some speculation may linger as to the involvement of the hearts.
The film is beautiful, each frame lovingly shot like a portrait itself. Johansson spends a lot of time holding the attention of the camera. It watches her, lingers on her, and she maintains the power to keep the viewer interested and involved. Her character speaks little but has a quick mind and rich inner sense of herself.
Firth, too, is exquisite to watch. He communicates volumes with his eyes, reaching out to capture the object of his gaze. His manner is halting, appropriate, but the look in those eyes is anything but. When he expresses his desire to paint Griet, it is a whisper, an intimacy, a secret laid bare. Ah, I realize I've been holding my breath just thinking about it.
The two are ably supported by a cast including Parfitt, Essie Davis, Tom Wilkinson, and Cillian Murphy. The lives not taken with hard work are rich with intrigue. Boredom begets an increasingly prurient interest in pot stirring and game playing. All of the characters are well-inhabited, whether lovely or despicable or both.
The music in the film is lovely and quiet. It doesn't intrude, serving only to lay a sonorous backdrop to the events of the film. The settings are equally great without upstaging the story. Vermeer's sensibility seems to be reflected in this vision of his place in the world.This movie is a must-see for art lovers and appreciators of fine storytelling. The film unfurls at the pace of a sleepy cat, but every moment seems full. This is life. This is art. This is a movie worth checking out.
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originally posted: 11/10/04 15:25:28