Painting by Numbers

A picture may say 1,000 words, but this film about one says considerably less

So, have you ever wondered what exactly goes into the painting of a portrait? You might have suspected there might be more to it than a painter saying something along the lines of, "Hey, baby, can I, uh, paint you?" and then someone else saying, "Yeah, sure, that'd be cool." You might be right -- there does, indeed, tend to be a little more to it than that. But not much more, at least if Girl with a Pearl Earring is to be believed.

Not a great deal is known about 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, so there's plenty of room to speculate, which is exactly what Tracy Chevalier did when she wrote the book upon which this film is based. Chevalier was inspired by a poster of the famous titular painting she had owned since she was 19; little surprise, then, that this Vermeer, as portrayed by Colin Firth, plays like a teenage girl's fantasy of a sensitive-yet-sexy artist. Apparently, Vermeer was the sole passionate hippie in a town full of puritans, the latter group epitomized by Tom Wilkinson as designated horny old hypocrite Master Van Ruijven.

And the girl in the picture? That'd be Griet (Scarlett Johansson, whose likeness to the painting is uncanny), a servant girl who, in this hypothetical telling, wasn't actually having an affair with Vermeer but was suspected by all nonetheless.

Details

Rated PG-13

Art director Ben Van Os clearly had the time of his life on this film -- every frame is lovingly composed and crafted like a Vermeer painting. It's beautiful to look at, and yet the story is strangely lacking. Important details, like why Griet's father looks grievously injured at the movie's beginning or what the religious conflicts of the day were, are hinted at in the film, but director Peter Webber and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed have given them short shrift for the cold moviegoer, and the drama suffers as a result.

On-screen, the story can be summed up simply: Vermeer wants to paint his new servant, and his lecherous patron wants to buy it; other people think this is rather inappropriate, and the servant herself has mixed feelings.

And that's it, really. So, yeah, painting's kinda cool. And artists are all passionate and stuff, but they don't necessarily do anything with those passions other than paint.

Oh, and the pearl earring? You'll have to see the film to find out where it comes from, but the answer really isn't that exciting.

 
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