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‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ shines

Johansson stars in this adaptation of the Tracy Chevalier novel. By Matt Wolf
/ Source: The Associated Press

Not that one intends any slight against a generally accomplished cast in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" -- featuring shooting star Scarlett Johansson -- but it's the look and attention to detail that truly set the movie apart.

And that's appropriate to a story about the mysterious way painters achieve something of beauty.Here, the artist is Johannes Vermeer, who died at 43 in 1675 -- his artistic legacy a scant 35 or so paintings -- but not before revolutionizing painting with the poetry to be found in the most seemingly mundane activities of daily life.In the Tracy Chevalier novel and now director Peter Webber's film, we get the possible back story to one of his best-known paintings, "Girl With A Pearl Earring."While countless films have attempted to show us how writers create -- last year's "The Hours" saw Nicole Kidman's Oscar-winning Virginia Woolf furiously scribbling "Mrs. Dalloway" -- "Girl" is one of the few to speculate on the creativity behind a certain painting.But even as Vermeer's presence puts art history on screen, the roll call of modern-day artists on this film must begin with cinematographer Eduardo Serra, the Oscar nominee (for 1997's "The Wings of the Dove") whose visual rendering of the Dutch town of Delft in the 17th century has a shimmering quality worthy of Vermeer himself.So ravishing is the film to look at -- an achievement shared by production designer Ben van Os and costume designer Dien van Straalen -- that its surface threatens to overwhelm its substance.As played by Colin Firth in an abrupt about-face from the heartsick writer he plays in "Love, Actually," Vermeer is heard before he first appears -- swathed in darkness, pulling back a curtain.And even though the character gradually emerges into the light, he remains unknowable in Olivia Hetreed's screenplay, which tends to keep the viewer at arm's length emotionally even as one is fully absorbed visually, frame by frame.Hetreed preserves the conceit of the novel while dispensing with its first-person point-of-view. As in the book, Johannson's Griet is forced into work at a young age following the sudden blinding of her father in a kiln explosion.She finds herself in the intrigue-laden Vermeer household, presided over by the artist's volatile wife, Catharina (Essie Davis) and his fierce-eyed mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt).Griet soon catches the eye of Vermeer, who appreciates the adolescent girl's awareness of the delicacies of shade, composition and light. Before long, the painter is showing Griet his new toy, a camera obscura, while promoting her from maid to artist's model for his famous painting.Away from the house, Griet must contend with the affections of a local butcher's son (Cillian Murphy) as well as the lecherous advances of Vermeer's wealthy patron, whom Tom Wilkinson ("In the Bedroom") plays as a sneering 17th-century version of Hugh Hefner.At times, Hetreed's script could be a bit more elegant. Such lines as "You looked inside me" from Griet sound like a dime-store romance.Still, there's no denying the versatility of Johansson, whose largely silent Griet is worlds away from the young American wife in Japan in "Lost In Translation." And as Vermeer's edgy spouse, Davis bristles with an energy that matches Vermeer's own paintings, which is where the power of "Girl With A Pearl Earring" finally lies.