This is a movie I wanted to like. Such a clever concept — who is the woman behind a famous painting and what is the story behind the image’s creation? I didn’t read the novel this fictional story is based on but it seemed solid enough. Big-name actors, big-budget production, and a time period I’m always fascinated by! But so much in Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003) rests on the central figure of Griet, played by Scarlett Johansson, and I don’t think she measures up. Maybe it’s not just her — Colin Firth as the painter Vermeer is doesn’t really gel either. Or perhaps they don’t work well together and that’s my issue with this film. Or maybe it’s the very male-gaze-y-ness of the director. Hard to say.
However, the whole thing looks really excellent, so there’s that. The movie is an homage to 17th-century art in the way the scenes are staged and lit, so even if the screenplay doesn’t move you, the cinematography and art direction might blow you away. And the costumes by Dutch designer Dien van Straalen received an Oscar nomination for recreating solid middle- and upper-class clothing of 1665 Netherlands.
Previously, she’d shared designer credits with Sandy Powell on Orlando (1992), so van Straalen is no slouch, even if she’s not a big name in Hollywood. According to Variety, the costume designer made extensive use of second-hand fabrics, including curtains, saris, and slipcovers, to get a more period aesthetic. Her team also aged some of these materials with sandpaper.
The costumes combined with the overall production design to create a very appealing period look. Tracy Chevalier, author of the novel the film is based on, visited the film set and described her experience in The Guardian. Inside the rooms she saw:
… all of the opulent details — the paintings hanging everywhere, the dishes, the furniture, the food — blend into the background. When watching the film we focus on Scarlett Johansson’s face, not the authentic blue-and-white delftware stacked on the table that some assistant worked so hard to locate. Production designer Ben van Os had designed a spectacular room full of pornography for the house of Vermeer’s patron van Ruijven, played by Tom Wilkinson; yet it doesn’t even get a look-in on screen, but ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Griet’s Costumes in Girl With a Pearl Earring
Though she’s the title character, Griet basically wears just one thing throughout the whole movie. But that makes sense because she’s just a simple maid, not a fashionable lady. From head to toe, her outfit looks right out of a period painting.
Costume designer Dien van Straalen said: “We used pale colors for Scarlett Johansson to give her the drab look of a poor servant girl,” and the makeup and hair designer Jenny Shircore commented:
“We just had to keep her skin looking milky, thick and creamy. This required some makeup because Scarlett has spots and things that happen to a 17-year-old. We wanted to present her as if she had no makeup on. We gave her a little bit of help by bleaching her eyebrows, because in the Vermeer paintings it’s all about skin and face, nothing else gets in the way, so you eliminate those other features.” (Variety).
Catharina’s Costumes in Girl With a Pearl Earring
Vermeer’s much put-upon wife, Catharina, wears the most interesting outfits in this film, as fits her social status. She’s played by Essie Davis, later known for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Several of these outfits are right from Vermeer paintings.
Makeup and hair designer Jenny Shircore noted that almost all of the cast wore wigs:
“For Vermeer’s wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), I used a very simple Dutch hairstyle. The women wound their hair round the back of their heads. There comes a point when you’ve finished the hair, it can’t be wound anymore because the length is used up. Instead of neatly pinning it away, we let the ends splay out, because in looking at references, little drawings and prints, we found that that’s what they did. Once you’re actually working within a period, the hairstyles evolve very naturally.” (Variety)
Maria Thins’ Costumes in Girl With a Pearl Earring
Vermeer’s mother-in-law (played by Judy Parfitt) is/was a bit higher status than him, and her clothes are quite elaborate. However, in keeping with the ‘older women wear out-of-date fashions’ trope, much of her wardrobe is 10-20 years behind the times.
Men’s Costumes in Girl With a Pearl Earring
The least historically accurate ones in the film, alas, and that’s on purpose due do the director’s “vision” … in Variety, director Peter Webber said of the costume design:
“I wanted a stripped-down look. If I dressed all the actors in the real costumes of that era, they would be wearing ruffles and baggy outfits. I didn’t want to put Colin Firth in that. For a modern audience he’s going to look too costumey. So we came up with a look we jokingly called period Prada, to give the clothes sleek lines. I called it my Vermeer filter: take the real clothes from the period and reduce them to their essence.”
headdesk That’s why the men’s clothes, in particular, look so blah. They don’t look historical, nor do they look modern, they just look weird.
Even if Vermeer’s costumes weren’t super accurate, Colin Firth seemed to really get into the character’s head, even though few historical facts are known about Vermeer. In the LA Times, director Peter Webber said:
“We talked about everything from his walk to how we would wear his hat, stand, hold paintbrushes, and then to how enigmatic did we want him, how mysterious? You want to have a lot of those discussions before you start …. It’s very expensive, talking on the set.”
In the same article, Colin Firth describes getting hands-on with his Vermeer research:
“I found I loved the very tangible stuff of just mixing paints and working with brushes and canvases. I love the materials. They’re not things I work with every day. Actors always have to pretend this and pretend that. If I can love mixing an incredibly beautiful bit of paint and I’m playing someone who loved doing that, then that’s just a gift right in your hands.”
At least costume designer Dien van Straalen tried with the clothes. She said of Vermeer:
“Obviously he was not a wealthy man, though he was considerably better off than Griet. So I wanted to keep him as plain as I could. He sometimes had to go out to social events, so we gave him one aged black dress suit with a simple white collar and a bit of braid.” (Variety)
And for Tom Wilkinson’s character, Dien van Straalen says:
“Vermeer’s patron, van Ruijven, wants to control Vermeer and enjoys his power over other people. For me he was a peacock strutting around with his money. I used more braids and more gold, big hats with feathers, and cloaks. We have costume makers in Holland who used to work for the opera so they know exactly how to make fancy clothing from that period.” (Variety)
Other Costumes in Girl With a Pearl Earring
There’s a few other women’s outfits…
The film ends with the eponymous painting, of course…
What do you think of Girl With a Pearl Earring?