Girl with a Pearl Earring

Let me just pull out the term "handsome production" right now. This movie is as sumptuous as they come. And it better be, as it's a drama about the great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, so audiences would practically demand that every shot look like one of the master's paintings. That's exactly what you get, thanks to the brilliant work of cinematographer Eduardo Serra, as well as production design by Ben van Os.

Despite the story's enormous artistic license, the film itself is awash in authenticity – it's even shot partially in Vermeer's hometown of Delft, Holland. This authenticity also applies to the depiction of daily Dutch life in the 1660s, and to Dutch morals of the time: the key to appreciating the film is the audience's acceptance of such social mores, where seeing a maid without her bonnet is akin to seeing her naked, and where a flattering portrait of somebody other than the artist's or the patron's wife is cause for scandal.

If you can buy into this, then you might just love Girl with a Pearl Earring, a fanciful suggestion of the story behind one of Vermeer's most famous paintings. Moreover, it is that rare film about an artist that celebrates the art, first and foremost. (Reason behind this may be the lack of gossip on Vermeer: by all accounts, he led an unremarkable life.) As Griet, the fictitious maid who becomes the painter's muse, Scarlett Johansson not only looks the part of a 17th-century Dutch girl but, even while rarely speaking, and wandering through her master's dimly-lit house with notably slack jaw, radiates a beauty that could conceivably inspire a great artist to create his best work. (Colin Firth is quietly intense as the brooding, though not ill-mannered, Vermeer.)

What's so wonderful about the story is that it focuses less on Vermeer's fascination with Griet and more on Griet's budding awareness of art. There's a little strained flirtation, but that's just to add spice. What audiences walk away with is Griet's joy in learning how colors are made, why underpainting is important, and the play of light and shadow to create beauty. In its sneaky way, this film is Art Appreciation 101. Though no classic, Girl with a Pearl Earring is definitely enjoyable, and a film that must be seen in the theaters to fully enjoy the rich colors, subtle lighting, and minute detail that can't be replicated on a TV screen.