Girl With A Pearl Earring (12A)

Peter Webber (100 mins) starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson
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In Godard's 1963 film Le Mépris, a naked Brigitte Bardot lolls on a double bed and itemises her cinema-friendly assets. "Do you like my breasts?" she wonders, "My ankles? My knees? My thighs?" One can imagine the 21st-century's latest muse, Scarlett Johansson, compiling a similar list. The young actress has two films out in as many weeks, both hungrily obsessed with her objects of desire. Lost in Translation, tellingly, begins with a close-up of her peachy bottom, gently encased by see-through silk knickers. Girl With A Pearl Earring, meanwhile, feeds on Johansson's eyes and mouth - features so ripe they look ready to secrete juice.

You don't have to be a Scarlettophile, however, to appreciate this handsome period outing. Producer Andy Paterson and his script-writer wife Olivia Hetreed fell in love with Tracy Chevalier's "re-imaginging" of the relationship between a painter (Johannes Vermeer) and his servant-girl model, even before the novel became a best-seller. And the many fans of that zippy Jane Eyre meets Brief Encounter meets Spare Rib romance will be pleased to hear that, as adaptations go, this one stays pretty true.

Griet (Johansson) is an illiterate but instinctively artistic Protestant girl in 17th-century Delft, thrown into the chaotic Catholic household of her semi-famous employer Vermeer (Colin Firth). She captures his heart and mind; alienates his wife, Catharina (Essie Davis); earns the grudging respect of his mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) and fends off the venal but discriminating art dealer Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). When not rubbing her arms raw in the laundry room, our reserved heroine also finds time to sit for the titular portrait that Van Ruijven mischievously commissions - resplendent in a blue and yellow scarf, a pearl dangling wetly from her ear.

Visually, the film makes a good fist of aping Vermeer's famously natural aesthetic - you can almost believe he helped to dab at the screen. Still, the film is built around Johansson's performance. One should be pleased. Cast in secondary roles, till now, the 19-year-old is one of those exceptional actresses who can "pass" as strange or normal. The secret weapon in Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn't There, her subtleness has been a joy to behold. The irony is that in Girl With A Pearl - in terms of her craft - she's never looked so bog-standard.

Me, I blame first-time feature director Peter Webber. He seems unable to trust that audiences will warm to a character as phlegmatic as Griet. His solution? To clue us in on her inner turmoil by having Johansson sport a permanent frown. Griet almost touches Vermeer's hand; she sees him sensually stroking his wife; she gets picked on by his daughter; she's accosted by Van Ruijven. On each occasion, you can all but hear Webber cry: "Scarlett! You're an imperilled ingenue! Work that forehead!" Still more annoying is a soundtrack that amplifies her every breath. When Griet's upset or excited, she inhales more quickly. Close your eyes and you could be listening to a porn film.

The heavy breathing reaches its climax at the point when Vermeer penetrates Griet's virgin lobe with the earring. Even if panting's your thing, though, it's unlikely you'll be convinced by the body heat on display. You believe that this servant finds her master's work fascinating, not that she's aroused by him. Every now and again, Firth manages to convey Vermeer's longing for her, but even then, things go awry. In a crucial scene, modest Griet agrees to swap her beloved headscarf for the yellow and blue turban, and the artist gets a fleeting glimpse of her chestnut hair. He looks on with frantic desire, but from where we're standing, said tresses resemble comedy dog-turds. Thank God for the turban.

Girl With A Pearl Earring is more effective when it concentrates on the minor characters, in particular, Vermeer's permanently pregnant wife. One of Webber's best moves is first to show Catharina ensconced in her domestic sphere, and then swing the camera round to reveal the dishevelled painter sitting there as well, at once incongruous and strangely content. It's clear that this pair exist in different worlds. Yet, while he's able to play a part in hers, she's not welcome in his. We discover that Vermeer often painted servant girls, not only as they were, but dressed up as "ladies". Something about his mate, though, repels his imagination. It's hard not to be moved by Catharina's stretched-cat face as she screams: "Why don't you paint me?" In the middle of all this make-believe, she's saddled with that most horrible and fixed of roles: the desired but unloved wife.

In this respect, Girl With A Pearl is streets ahead of Lost in Translation. Webber's film also has a more egalitarian approach to notions of culture. Griet's noble desire to hide her hair makes you think of the current debate about what Muslim girls can and cannot wear at school in France. As you watch the Catholic families walking through Delft, meanwhile, it strikes you that their stiff, jet-black outfits look as "foreign" as round-brimmed Hasidic hats. Without labouring the point, the film-makers constantly underline the impossibility of identifying who or what is the norm.

If only the film's foreground were as absorbing. Johansson looks good enough to eat, but she and Firth's simmering shenanigans make little impression. Vermeer's great gift as an artist was to imbue ordinary life with a sense of mystery. Alas poor Webber. The immaculate consummation witnessed here idles in a middlebrow limbo, neither earthy nor divine.

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