Studio: Lions Gate (released Dec. 12)
Screenplay: Olivia Hetreed
Source Material: “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” novel by Tracy Chevalier
Storyline: A 17th century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth), forms a covert relationship with a 17-year-old servant girl, Griet (Scarlett Johansson). He chooses her as the subject of his portrait, and exploits the sexual tension between them to coax a mixture of sadness, longing, and frustration from Griet, which he captures on canvas. The relationship climaxes when he presents Griet with his wife’s pearl earring, and pierces her ear so she can wear it.
About the script: We often think of great screenwriting as tour-de-force dialogue, but Hetreed’s script focuses on the silences between people, the emotions that remain unspoken because of fears or inarticulateness. The dynamics of the Vermeer household are keenly observed. Vermeer’s mother-in-law, who at first appears harsh, is revealed to be fighting desperately for the family’s financial survival. In an era when American cinema celebrates all forms of excess, “Girl With a Pearl Earring” demonstrates the value of old-fashioned virtues such as restraint.
Biggest challenge: “The novel is told from Griet’s point of view, so you are privy to all of her thoughts and feelings,” says Hetreed. “I didn’t want to use a voiceover in the movie because Griet’s an inarticulate, unanalytical character. So I had to find visual ways of dramatizing her emotions and thoughts. For instance, in the novel there’s a fantastically erotic moment where Vermeer has her look into his camera obscura. He gives her his cloak and says, “Put this over your head.” She puts it over her head and she can smell his smell and feel the warmth because he’s just been wearing it. It was a fantastic moment, but you couldn’t make that work on screen. Instead I put the two of them under the cloak, and you can feel the sexual tension between them.”
Breakthrough idea: “The book has a 15-year time jump in it,” says Hetreed. “I decided that that just wouldn’t play in a movie. The sexual tension is so intense that it’s very important that the story takes place in a tight time frame; it needs that intensity of the moment to make it work.”
Favorite scene: “There’s a scene with Griet and Vermeer where he says, ‘Look at the clouds, what color are they?'” Hetreed says. “She starts to understand how he looks at the world.”
Lines we love: Van Ruijven, Vermeer’s patron, who enjoys taunting the artist, regarding Griet: “Master and maid, that’s an old tune and we all know it.'”
Recognition to date:Golden Hitchcock, Audience Award 2003 Dinard Festival of British Cinema; cinematography, San Sebastian Film Festival
Writer’s bio: Hetreed worked as a movie editor for Brit TV and went on to write several telepics, including adaptations of “The Canterville Ghost,” and “The Treasure Seekers.” After “Girl,” she wrote the first installment of the BBC’s series based on “The Canterbury Tales.”