In this Britney-and-Beyonce-obsessed age 'tis a wonder anyone other than an art history buff knows who Rembrandt is let alone that other Dutch painter guy--what'shisname Vermeer. In fact very little is known about the 17th-century painter who died in debt at 43 and left most of his works including his most famous of a young girl wearing a pearl earring shrouded in mystery. Girl With a Pearl Earring is director Peter Webber's adaptation of the 1999 Tracy Chevalier novel that spun a gauzy fiction about the painter's unrequited obsession with a young maid who became his muse and the subject of said painting. The maid in question is Griet (Scarlett Johansson) whose tilemaker father's accident forces their family into poverty and her into servitude--and it's no picnic. Morose henpecked Vermeer (Colin Firth) hides in his studio away from the household which includes the puffy and pampered wife (Essie Davis) he keeps eternally pregnant; her tyrannical domineering mother (Judy Parfitt) who brazenly solicits work for Vermeer from patrons like rich lecher Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson); and a multitude of Vermeer brats. Full-lipped and nubile the servant Griet becomes the artist's secret obsession--he spies on her cleaning his studio teaches her about painting (or at least how to make his paints) and seduces her while painting her portrait behind his wife's back.
With little dialogue to speak Johansson's Griet is a study in silence. Her wide-eyed earnest stares and Mona Lisa smile do the talking for her proving a picture certainly can say a thousand words. She may get more attention for Lost in Translation but this is her vehicle. Johansson's quiet understated performance makes the others look that much more overstated--Wilkinson's vulgar mustache twirling art patron for example and Davis's jealous and ranting Catharina Vermeer for another although they too are very solid turns. Firth's Vermeer fades into the background surrounded by these big personalities understandably and fittingly so; he's the brooding artist who'd be far happier left alone to gaze upon his subject. Although the master and the servant never do much more than exchange looks the sensual energy between them is palpable.
This movie is beautiful absolutely stunning--it's as if cinematographer Eduardo Serra saw Vermeer's life through the artist's eyes and that vision comes through in exquisitely framed and lit shots. Some scenes--of young lovers walking along a tree-lined canal in fall light beaming across the girl's face as she cleans the studio's beveled windows--are literally breathtaking. Just as an artist's work is tactile so does this film feel--in the sounds of a heavy knife chopping vegetables and a spatula grinding pigment into paste…volumes are spoken in the clean white crispness of Griet's bonnet. First-time helmer Webber occasionally allows the camera to hang too long (a lip-licking scene in extreme close-up for example) but he creates a fully enveloping period and confidently leads his cast through this fairly thin story. You can pretty much guess what you're in for with a movie about a 17th-century Dutch master; knowing that if there's any criticism to be made it's that the pic feels every bit of its 95 minutes long. A lovely score by Alexandre Desplat also deserves a mention although it sometimes overwhelms scenes with unwarranted portentousness.
After being drugged by a rival earl French nobleman Count Thibault (Jean Reno)
murders his bride-to-be Rosalind Malfete (Christina Applegate) on the eve of
their impending nuptials. While awaiting his execution Thibault sends his servant
André (Christian Clavier) to fetch a wizard (Malcolm McDowell) who can send Thibault
back in time so he can undo the night's tragic events. The spell backfires and
sends Thibault and his sidekick into the future instead of the past straight
into a Chicago museum's exhibit of medieval artifacts in the year 2000. Thibault
soon realizes that the exhibit's curator Julia Malfete (Applegate again) is
his descendant 30 generations removed after semi-convincing her of this he enlists
her help in finding the wizard who can send him back to the 12th century to save
their lineage. Meanwhile Julia's unfaithful money-grubbing husband Hunter (Matthew
Ross) throws a wrench in their plans and tries to have Thibault arrested for
false impersonation in order to hold onto the Malfete family fortune Julia stands
to inherit. Though the plot is riddled with holes the story line takes full advantage
of the 12th-century-meets-21st-century jokes and pranks including the visitors'
fascinations with modern day transportation electricity toilets and urinals
all guaranteeing good laughs.
Reno and Clavier reprise their roles in this American adaptation of the 1993 French
blockbuster Les Visiteurs. Reno brings both warmth and wit to Thibault's
character and carries the film from beginning to end. Tough chivalrous and charming
he evokes the legendary knight in shining armor. Though Clavier who plays his
subservient sidekick and brunt of all jokes elicits a few chuckles with his slip-and-fall
physical comedy he also demonstrates a tender side when he pleads with Thibault
for his freedom. Applegate puts on a believable British accent as Rosalind in
12th-century England but fares much better as Julia in 21st-century Chicago.
McDowell in the role of the blundering wizard shows that his strength may lie
more in the villainous than the comedic: his character is never really developed
leaving his portrayal one dimensional and stereotypical at best. Not much can
be said for the performances of Ross and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras either. Ross'
character is your run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter bad guy with no morals while
Wilson-Sampras overplays the made-up preening secretary.
The beginning of the film which is set in 12th-century England is done surprisingly
well from the costumes down to the cinematography; unfortunately this seems
to be where the bulk of the budget was spent. The modern day portion of the film
is sadly lacking especially when juxtaposed against the cold dark and realistically
gloomy feel of the first half. The special effects during the latter portion of
the film seem almost cartoonish and diminish the overall look of the film. While
Just Visiting retains the principal players of its French counterpart
including writer Jean-Marie Poire and director Jean-Marie Gaubert don't expect
this film to achieve a fraction of the success it had on the other side of the
Atlantic. Yet it provides good laughs from start to finish and the best moments
astonishingly enough were not limited to the ones shown in the film's trailer.