When buzz started circulating about "Girl With a Pearl Earring," it sounded like a gimmick. The story focuses on Johannes Vermeer, arguably the greatest Dutch painter of the 17th century, and the entire film is made in conscious imitation of his style - including his pristine lighting effects, meticulous compositional designs, and innovative uses of perspective.
On canvas, these achievements make Vermeer a towering figure. But mimicking them in cinematic terms has a touch of slavishness about it. Would this be the motion-picture equivalent of a pop album by a tribute band that can't dream up its own ideas?
The outcome is quite the opposite, thanks to the integrity shown by director Peter Webber and cinematographer Eduardo Serra in manifesting their respect for Vermeer. Other filmmakers have paid homage to his work - most notably Peter Greenaway, who uses allusion and quotation rather than outright replication. The homage paid in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" has an emotional validity all its own, however, rooted in the discipline and creativity Webber and Serra show in sustaining their version of Vermeer's vision throughout some 95 minutes of eye-dazzling drama.
Scarlett Johansson plays a naive young servant who eventually becomes the "girl with a pearl earring" in one of Vermeer's most celebrated paintings. Her name is Griet, and she takes a domestic job in the house of the Dutch master (Colin Firth) when her family becomes impoverished. He makes her a protégée when he discovers her eye for nuances of light and color. He also becomes fascinated by her appearance, touching off envy in his wife while bringing inspiration to his work.
In some ways the movie has a rather trite trajectory, driven by stock characters like the jealous spouse, the uncouth patron of the arts, and the crusty old chambermaid with a heart of gold. Nor is there anything fresh about the story of a hard-pressed artist desperate for the stream of aesthetic ideas he needs to keep his reputation comfortably afloat.
What distinguishes "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is its combination of refined filmmaking and Johansson's exquisitely understated acting. It partakes of Vermeer's spirit and style, and that makes it one of the year's best movies.
• Rated PG-13; contains sexuality.