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 Webbers
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 years 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
"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.
Webbers film, which is adapted from Tracy Chevaliers
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
"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
"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 years awards season.