With Colin Firth looking set to win the Academy Award for his performance as King George VI in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, and with my Colin Firth love unsatisfied, I sat down to watch his performance as the 17th century artist Johannes Vermeer in The Girl with a Pearl Earring, the 2003 film in which he co-starred with Scarlett Johansson.
To me, Firth has always been a master of subtlety. His best known performance as Mr. Darcy in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice required an aloof restraint, as he played the proud and reserved literary hero. My favourite scene in that tale comes late in the movie, as Lizzy (Jennifer Ehle) rushes to protect Darcy’s young sister, Georgiana, from the cruel reminder of an ill-fated affair with Mr. Wickham. Darcy’ s gratitude for Lizzy’s intervention shows all over Firth’s face, but is not an showy display of affection. Simply sublime acting by Firth.
Even as Bertie in The King’s Speech, Firth’s greatest challenge was not the stutter, but the way that Bertie’s body would tense as he tried to speak. It was such a subtle but important acting choice that it reminded me how great an actor Firth is, and how underrated he has been until this performance.
So his performance as Johannes Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring did not come as a surprise to me. Although an artist, Vermeer was repressed by social convention and also by the expectations of his patron, Pieter Van Ruijven and produced art for pay (which of course was not unusual). Perhaps because of this, however, Vermeer found inspiration difficult to come by. Enter young Griet, a housemaid played by Scarlett Johansson. She brings out the passion in Vermeer, and they come to find that they share a love and appreciation for the beauty of art.
Johansson seems to have received most of the acting accolades for this work, and while she is deserving of credit for her portrayal of the young, innocent Griet, this film is a dance between Vermeer and Griet.
Stylistically, this is one of the most lovely films I have seen in recent years (aside from another Firth film, Tom Ford’s beautiful A Single Man). It draws heavily from Johannes Vermeer’s artistic vision. The cinematography is breathtaking, all wonderful hues and shades, shadows and light. It is a quiet film, but one that speaks loudly despite its verbal silence.
Firth and Johansson play with the interaction between their characters, infusing the film with a quiet, desperate longing and profound sexual tension. The eroticism of one moment in particular is overwhelming and breathtaking. So much is left unsaid, but it is on naked display in the painting of the girl with the pearl earring.