Movies about the artistic method usually feed their audiences' willful mystification with the subject. They either depict creation as a borderline-holy process that's beyond the ken of us mundane types, or as the free-flowing output of obsessive-compulsives who have a nearly equal affinity for sexual promiscuity and other vices.
Sometimes (as in "The Red Violin"), a film touches base with both of these schools of thought. "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is such a picture, yet it's markedly more satisfying than most. For one thing, its heroine, a lowly but aesthetically minded Dutch maid named Griet (Scarlett Johansson), comes from an artistic background herself, so it's logical that she'd be awed at being thrust into the home of master painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Sent to cook and clean for the rapidly expanding Vermeer clan -- whose standoffish lady of the house (Essie Davis) is constantly squeezing out the puppies -- Griet shuffles about the place, averting her eyes from one social "superior" after another. But she can't help staring in wonder at the tools of the painter's trade, nor at the sunlit attic corner that supplies the backdrop of his work. It's a long way from the simple images on tile she's used to seeing her own father produce. And when Vermeer notices her fascination, he instinctively draws her into his world.
As screenwriter Olivia Hetreed (adapting the book by Tracy Chevalier) tells it, Griet is destined to sit for one of the most revered portraits in art -- at least, one of the most revered portraits that doesn't star a sad-eyed clown. But first she has to navigate the class-based jealousies of a 17th-century household and decide just how much she can expect from her future. Should she follow her muse to be a muse, or is there more sense in returning the advances of the local butcher boy (Cillian Murphy of "28 Days Later"), who'd obviously like to -- ahem! -- slip her today's special? Sexual awakening is a big thing to this "Girl," with portraiture shown as a form of deflowerment that's even more enticing than the real thing.
That kind of heavy-breathing transference can get a little dicey, but the movie cuts it with a healthy dose of socioeconomic reality: Vermeer and his dependents live or die at the whim of his wealthy, carnally corrupt patron (Tom Wilkinson). As the painter's iron-willed mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) puts it, his commissioned works are nothing more than "pictures for money." Those are words no artist wants to hear, no matter how much he should.
Cinematographer Eduardo Serra supplies painterly setups that should inspire much cooing from the gallery-opening set. Yet the movie gets some of its gravitas from the feeling that Hetreed and director Peter Webber are really making a point about their own medium, as when Vermeer's receipt of a camera obscura inspires a brief discussion of image versus reality. Who can say if what a camera sees is genuine or not? Vermeer and Griet barely reach an agreement. It's not a big deal, but it's in there nonetheless. And it's way better insight than you'd get from Clown With a Big Red Nose.