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The screen becomes a canvas

Girl with a Pearl Earring (PG-13) (95 min.) _ The anonymous model's face is as serene and inscrutable as the Mona Lisa's. She's young and fair-skinned, her hair beneath a kerchief hidden as completely as the thoughts behind her dark eyes. Over her left shoulder hangs a piece of jewelry that somehow seems out of place with her modest appearance.

She's forever known as the Girl with a Pearl Earring, one of the most famous creations by the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer. Not much more is known about the artist than is known about his subject. Because Vermeer's life wasn't well-documented, author Tracy Chevalier devised a biography for him in a 2001 novel based on scant details. In his film version, director Peter Webber appears not only faithful to the book but also to Vermeer's palette and vision.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is an exquisite exercise in set design and lighting, mimicking Vermeer's hues, pulling viewers into Webber's cinematic canvas to find, well, not much. The emotions concocted for these characters are muted to a fault; all passion is concealed except for those outbursts necessary to generate some kind of plot. This film could be displayed on a museum wall and fit right in with the other still lifes.

Scarlett Johansson, a Golden Globe nominee for this role and Lost in Translation, plays the fictional housemaid Griet, hired to work in the home of Vermeer's mother-in-law, where he lived with his wife and children when finances were tight. Vermeer, played with seething minimalism by Colin Firth, seems to be a temperamental artist and has a domineering mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt, quietly arch), and emotionally fragile wife Catharina (Essie Davis, always on the verge of hysterics).

Johansson plays Griet so subdued that her understated work in Lost in Translation looks positively manic in comparison. She has an interesting face yet, because of the costuming, that's all that registers, and Olivia Hetreed's screenplay renders her mostly silent. It's an impressionistic performance that doesn't always adapt well to the screen.

Griet intrigues Vermeer when she shows an interest in his paintings. He teaches her to mix paints and takes her shy advice on composition. Taking a more devious interest in Griet is Vermeer's patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson, twirling his mustache). He wants her body, but he'll settle for a portrait, a scandalous request on several counts. But Maria wants the money, so she urges Vermeer to do the job, keeping it secret from her daughter, who already suspects her marriage is in trouble.

Even for those unfamiliar with Vermeer's paintings, it's easy to detect when Webber is re-creating one since an already slow-moving film pauses in reverence. More satisfying is observing Eduardo Serra's cinematography and its beautiful use of candlelight, or the painstaking production design that remains accurately non-glamorous. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a marvel for the eye and a mortar for the heart, too concerned with replicating art to make us appreciate the passion beneath the brushstrokes. B-

_ STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

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