The film version of Tracy Chevalier's incredible novel was notable as the ultimate eye-candy, a successful artsy portrayal of seventeenth century Delft as if it had just emerged from a Johannes Vermeer canvas. It emphasized several aspects of the novel, most notably the incredible restraint in the face of a growing attraction practiced between the two leads—the staid and brilliant painter, played by Colin Firth, and the humble and practical house maid, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Unfortunately this remarkable sojourn into the visual abandoned much of the plot and many of the characters.
The novel, a multi million seller in over thirty languages, clearly caught the fancy of so many people, regardless of culture, age and gender. Unlike the film, it emphasized more than the historical aspects of the tale and the restraint. There are a series of brewing tensions, between Griet's life beyond the Vermeer household and within it, between the sexes, the classes, and the distrust between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority in The Netherlands. These things are touched upon in the film, but not explored.
The painting, "has been called the Dutch Mona Lisa. Sometimes she appears to be smiling sensuously, while other times she seems unbearably sad…" (from the flyleaf of the Dutton hardcover edition.) It is unusual among Vermeer paintings in that there is no background, none of the famous perspective of his familiar interiors and landscapes. The film wallows in the premise of the novel while trotting off in a slightly askew direction from it, even altering the ending (which is an all too familiar trope practiced by filmmakers,) diluting the full impact of Vermeer's gift to the girl who in this age might have been both his apprentice and his lover, but not here.
The story is told as a memoir. Griet looks back on the years 1664, when she went to work for the Vermeers as a sixteen year old; 1665, when Vermeer allowed her to become his secret assistant; and 1666 when he painted her portrait, also in secret, to appease his odious patron. By 1666 Griet has been largely ostracized by the large family, save for the eldest daughter who befriends her, the matriarch, who respects her, and Vermeer, who sees her as someone who functions as almost an equal within his refined artistic world. Vermeer's wife, Catharina, is portrayed as mercurial, jealous, and chronically pregnant, and his second daughter, Cornelia, as cunningly vindictive. The film captured these two characters to perfection. Adding to Griet's problems are van Ruijven, the licentious patron, who delights in seducing and ruining house maids—also a focal point in the film.
Beyond the walls of the Vermeer household is her family home, which she visits on Sundays, save for those months it is quarantined during an outbreak of the plague. Also there is the meat market, where a young butcher and his father take an interest in Griet, giving her news of her family. The slow but certain decision to accept the young butcher's advances even though she is in love with Vermeer is only touched upon in the film. Also lost are her relationship with her brother and sister, the steadily declining fortunes of her parents, and the kindly van Leeuwenhoek, whose camera obscura Vermeer uses to refine his own painter's vision, as well as Griet's maturation over the two year period she spends with the Vermeers.
Ms. Chevalier artfully weaves a number of Vermeer canvases into her telling, some as reference points, while others take form slowly before her heroine's appreciative eyes. She misses that fact that the background of the title painting was not originally black, having darkened with age, and she chooses to overlook that it is thought to be of Vermeer's eldest daughter.
Unlike the film, the book's ending comes a decade later, two months after Vermeer's untimely death, presumably from a stroke, here attributed to the pressures of declining fortunes. Now a mother of two and a tradesman's wife, Griet has a larger perspective on things when she is summoned back to the Vermeer household. The grief and the class exhibited by the various characters are what give the novel its closure, which is completely lacking from the film.
Vermeer, the artist, is another matter altogether. There is very little known about his personal life, and some of it is contradictory to the novel. For a Dutch master, his output seems to have been remarkably small—less than forty finished paintings. His wife had fifteen children, losing four in childbirth, which is slightly altered for dramatic effect in the story. He did use his wife and children as models, unlike the book, which dramatizes the fact he chooses to paint Griet and not Catharina as a focal point of tension between the women.
When all is said and done, Vermeer remains the most enigmatic and remarkable of painters, Girl with a Pearl Earring a most haunting painting, a brilliant novel, and a stunning film, even if the facts, the book, and the movie are altogether different things.
© Paul L. Bates 2012