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Girl With a Pearl Earring - Mediocre dialogue is absolutely crippling and brilliant dialogue is a free ride



Feature by: Jack Foley

GIVEN the mystery surrounding the life and work of Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, you could have forgiven British actor, Colin Firth, for thinking twice about playing him.

But his performance in Girl With a Pearl Earring, Peter Webber’s imagined tale of the inspiration behind one of his greatest surviving works, is one of the strongest of his career, and one which continues to win the actor considerable acclaim.

Speaking at a recent press conference for the movie, held at the Dorchester Hotel as part of last year’s London Film Festival, Firth admitted that much of the foundation for the performance lay in the mystery which still surrounds the painter.

"The secret was in the mystery," he agreed. "What you have in terms of historical understanding is mystery, and what Tracy Chevalier wrote was also mystery, and I was perpetuating that interpretation.

"It was a balancing act - fleshing him out without revealing too much. We weren't trying to do Amadeus; preserving the enigma of the figure had to be handled delicately and, ultimately, I was the final frontier of keeping that going."

What is known about Vermeer is that he was born sometime in 1632, in the city of Delft, in The Netherlands, and that his father, Reynier Vermeer, probably introduced him to his love of painting. It is not certain, however, who taught him (whether it was Carel Fabritius or Leonaert Bramer, who have both been cited as influences).

During the Dutch Golden Age, painting was not considered an art, but a craftsmanship, or a way to make a living, but because of the economic difficulties in The Netherlands, in the late 17th Century, the art dealing business went bad for Vermeer and, by the time of his death, in 1675, he left Catherina, his wife, and their children with very little money.

Perhaps even more tragically, after his death, the artist and his work were forgotten, which meant that only a small number of his paintings have survived, including the girl with a pearl earring. It was only much later that he came to be recognised as one of the great Dutch artists.

Webber’s film, which is adapted from Tracy Chevalier’s acclaimed novel, attempts to shed light on the inspiration behind that work, without presuming to make too bold a statement. Hence, much of the film relies on under-statement, with silent glances used to convey the mutual appreciation which exists between artist and subject, and the brooding affair which might have resulted.

It also makes it a particularly bold affair, for first-time director, Webber, and one which relies on the power of its performances, rather than any awkward dialogue. Yet Firth, who has appeared in his fair share of hopelessly scripted movies, maintains that this was one of the most rewarding challenges of taking on the project.

"I think I can speak for a lot of actors, that dialogue is often very limiting, particularly if it's anything other than excellent," he continued.

"Mediocre dialogue is utterly crippling to the process and brilliant dialogue is a free ride, but no dialogue is a very liberating and inspiring thing to do, as long as you've got the confidence of a great director.

"Someone implied it reduced the role of the scriptwriter, but it's the contrary - the confidence and the skill to be able to use this type of cinema shows confidence in your writing, which is unusual. It requires great maturity."

It is a point with which co-star, Scarlett Johansson, emphatically agrees, particularly when asked whether she found the lack of dialogue to be a daunting prospect.

"It actually made my job a lot easier," she maintained. "I mean, what could really have solved those silences? I can't imagine what kind of awful dialogue could have been written in there.

"Our crew was so respectful of the time it took to get where we needed to, without having any dialogue. We wouldn't have said anything to each other, it wasn't my place to say anything, so I just took that for what it was."

Johansson, who can also be seen in Lost in Translation, portrays a peasant girl, Greit, who is forced to work as a maid in the home of Vermeer, who subsequently becomes the model for one of his most famous works.

But while there may have been pressure to include at least one great moment of passion between the two, or, as Johansson puts it, a scene with ‘Vermeer standing over the courtyard watching Greit washing her breasts in a basin’,

the film never succumbs to such temptation, making sure to perpetuate the mystery surrounding the work of art.

And while Firth joked that any such pressure largely came from him, producer, Andy Patterson, maintains that ‘the power of the story was in the restraint’, which is something that critics on both sides of the Atlantic appear to agree with.

With so much emphasis being placed on the lack of dialogue, therefore, it was little wonder to find thoughts turning to previous performances by Firth, and he was amused to find one journalist quizzing him on whether he had ever refused to say a line on film.

"I once insisted that someone else's line was cut, because I refused to be in the same room with it. Although it may seem a little out of context here, the line was: "You played me, Ross, You played me, and I'm not even a piano," he said, after a great deal of thought, and amid much laughter.

Poor lines may well be a thing of the past for Firth, however, who looks set for a busy year.

Having just gone all romantic for Richard Curtis, in the ensemble comedy, Love Actually, and come over all moody for Girl With a Pearl Earring, he will be returning to the type of film which helped to make his name, in the British psychological thriller, Trauma, alongside Mena Suvari, before reprising his Bridget Jones role for the sequel, The Edge of Reason, which is due for release at the end of the year.

But for now, the emphasis is very much on Girl With a Pearl Earring, especially as it looks likely to feature prominently among the nominees for this year’s awards season.

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