In this cinematic adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's best-selling historical fiction novel, Scarlett Johansson stars as Griet, the young housemaid with a hidden appreciation for art who becomes the muse of Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Vermeer is famous for capturing the luminosity and grace of women in domestic settings. But his proud wife (Essie Davis) would be furious if she knew the pretty Griet was his latest subject.
I'm impressed that a movie with fairly major Hollywood faces, if mostly European fingerprints, could be so aggressively slow and stately. But to a non-creative person like me, it seems to describe the creative process of an obsessive painter rather well. Obviously, it's based on a novel and is pure speculation, but it's very engrossing at it's own pace.
It gets most of its power from the deglamorized, frightened and quietly observant face of Scarlett Johansson, as Griet, the girl. The credits list an "etiquette consultant", and I assume she was there to remind Johansson of whether she should be staring in fright at her shoes or staring in fright at the third shirt button of the person whom she is addressing. As the movie reaches its rather calm climax her character begins looking people in the eye, not like Norma Rae or something, but like a child who has just realized she is part of an adult world, and not without power.
It is notable that two of England's prettiest and most watchable actors, Colin Firth and Cillian Murphy, seem a little overshadowed. Firth, who makes waiting for a train look interesting, doesn't have much to do but glower across a room here and look soulfully across a room there. Otherwise, the story is really about how Griet interacts with all the females and patrons in Vermeer's life, and how many chances she takes to serve as his chaste muse.
The re-creation of 17th Century Holland certainly looks and feels realistic and adds a lot to my appreciation of what the lower class went through to stay fed by the upper class. But it doesn't show a grinding life without any charm whatsoever. The outdoor scenes are beautiful. The final scene showing the actual painting doesn't have the catclysmic power of the finale of Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev", but it will do.