A painting of a young girl's face, her expression enigmatic, her head swathed in gold and blue cloth with a single pearl hanging from her earlobe, a spear-point of light that catches the eye.
This real-life painting by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (played here by Colin Firth) was the sole inspiration for this hauntingly romantic tale. A tale of the struggle between the classes, of etiquette, of the power that money can buy and, ultimately, unrequited love.
The tale itself is slow in unfolding, but does so with such passion and conviction that you can forgive the snail's pace. This is an artist's world, Vermeer's world, where everything must have its place and is not satisfactory if it is not perfection. Imagine then, the dissatisfaction of an artist forced to hurry his work in light of his finances, his iron fisted mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt) and his perpetually pregnant wife (Essie Davis) with a horde of daughters, none of whom understand his perception or his art.
It is into this world that Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is forced by poverty and becomes an object for Vermeer, his family and his Patron of Arts (Tom Wilkinson). Griet is caught between her growing empathy with Vermeer, the hostility of his family and the lusts of his patron. It is here that we see the inequality bought about by the arrogance of the bourgeois rich and their attitude to the poor. Differences in religion, sex and class are all portrayed with money literally being the root of all evil. The only surcease from this stifling world of control and etiquette for Griet is her brief romance with the butcher's son Pieter (Cillian Murphy). He alone can bring a smile to her lips and give her ease to be herself, but he does not have the fascination of Vermeer.
The scenes of this film are shot beautifully, with the clever lighting generating warmth and deep shadow which gives the whole production the look and feel of a painting in its own right. Loving attention is paid to every detail, with the starkness and filth of the outside streets contrasting with the opulence inside the Vermeer household, and the perfect sanctuary away from this bedlam in Vermeer's studio. The dialogue is quiet and intense, with each word conveying a wealth of emotion.
What is more striking is the incredible focus on the visual aspects of this artist's world. Every colour is rich and vibrant with each scene a composite of layers generating a fullness of life in such a small space. When we are presented with the front of Vermeer's house, it is the canal with its boats that is foremost in the shot, with the street and its bustling life behind it, and finally beyond the street is the door that leads into Vermeer's courtyard. This merging of several different aspects of life is continued in every set, except the relatively calm space of the studio where all distractions are banished.
The interplay between the characters is also intensely visual; little is spoken but much is conveyed with gesture and expression. A challenge for the actors but one that is met and mastered by all involved.
I do doubt that this masterpiece of film will appeal to everyone, but it is refreshing to watch a movie that relies on a good story with believable characters and not a series of inane fight scenes and car chases. This is a story that switches on the mind, makes you think and feel and wonder. It is a piece of art that will remain with me for a very long time.
:: Sarah Oliver