As Griet, the 17th-century Dutch housemaid employed by the painter Johannes Vermeer, Scarlett Johansson wears her hair pinned up and hidden under a crisp, white bonnet in all but one scene. The effect is mysterious and twofold. It accentuates the fleshy broadness of the actress's face, turning it into a canvas that will be colored with emotion as the film unfolds. And it gives the scene in which Griet finally takes that bonnet off -- and her hair tumbles down in luxuriant red tresses -- the force of a virgin's swoon. That's about as explicit as things get in "Girl With a Pearl Earring," but you still may blush when it comes. Peter Webber's film is less an adaptation of the best-selling Tracy Chevalier novel than a painting of it. The surface of "Girl" is rich with the busy details of life in 1665 Delft, where Vermeer (Colin Firth) struggles to maintain patronage for his art while overseeing a household of wife, mother-in-law, and ever more children (11 survived), and where the 16-year-old Griet toils in anonymous servitude. The real drama of the film lies in the relationship between maid and master, and it moves with the pace of brushstrokes cautiously applied. Dancing on the edge of dullness, "Girl" is continually saved by the look of things: the hush of an atelier in midafternoon, dust-motes swirling in a sunbeam, pigment blooming under mortar and pestle. Impatience is forestalled, time and again, by rapture.
Griet herself has an artistic temperament -- she's forced to work after her artisan father is blinded -- and while her duties consign her at first to the kitchen and stairs, she is drawn to the unmoving miracle of "Lady With a Pearl Necklace" leaning on a second-floor easel. Instructed to dust the studio, she balks at cleaning the windows. "It may change the light," she protests, and the artist's ears prick up.
As do the attentions of Vermeer's main patron, a wealthy and profligate fool named Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who assumes that all women are there for the plucking. Even as he lusts after Griet, Van Ruijven sees her becoming Vermeer's apprentice and muse, and he demands that she be painted, for his own pleasure and to foment a little domestic turmoil. Mrs. Vermeer (Essie Davis), shrewish and ever-pregnant, has her suspicions, and her mother (regal Judy Parfitt) is certain "there has been too much sneaking around."
The irony is that the bond between Vermeer and Griet is both more innocent and more profound than any of them know. The painter shows her his camera obscura, that early optical device in which the world hangs upside down, and he teaches her how to prepare his colors: gum arabic, ruby scales, malachite, vermilion. There's the seduction right there, in the words and in the rainbow they convey, and the air between the two trembles with a passion that could bring down bourgeois Holland itself.
It's an aesthetic passion, and that's the film's strength and weakness. "Girl" is so static at times that it threatens to turn into a coffee-table book: Eduardo Serra's precise, sensuous photography mimics the angles and light of the Dutch Golden Age, while Alexandre Desplat's score burbles with elegant baroque minimalism. It's a marvelous exercise in control, but how much control can a movie take before its engines seize up?
Griet ultimately poses for the famous title painting, and the scene includes a gesture so freighted with erotic portent that you may smother a giggle or two (much more powerful is the sequence immediately following, in which the painter moves her into the pose burning in his mind). It doesn't help that the film's heroine is a passive object throughout -- a maid to her mistress, a potential wife to the butcher's handsome son (Cillian Murphy of "28 Days Later"), a painting to her master.
And it certainly doesn't help that Firth makes an altogether too fussy Vermeer. I understand that there are palpitating legions of fans who will disagree, and I'm not taking issue with the man's talent; it's there and it's real, but it never feels right for this movie. You need a man who can brood with the best of them -- a young Jeremy Irons, say -- but the best Firth can muster is an irritable snit.
Johansson, by contrast, keeps you constantly apprised of the feelings swimming far below Griet's placid face; it's a performance as rigorously internal as Charlotte in "Lost in Translation" was a helpless mess. Between those two roles, Johansson is in danger of turning into Our Damsel of the Unconsummated Relationship, but I can't think of any other actor who can be so yearning yet so withholding. There are moments in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" when Griet is still, and both the painter and we are suddenly transfixed by the art hidden there.
("Girl With A Pearl Earring": ***)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.