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Viewer Guide: “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “Once Upon A River”

January 25, 2022 | Richard Peña


Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003).

This week’s double feature begins with Girl with a Pearl Earring, a 2003 historical romantic drama directed by Peter Webber. 

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring time travels back to the Dutch city of Delft in 1665 to spin a “what if” tale behind the creation of painter Johannes Vermeer’s enigmatic masterpiece, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Scarlett Johansson stars as Griet, a sixteen year-old woman whose family circumstances lead her to take a job as a maid in Vermeer’s household. Vermeer himself, played by Colin Firth, rarely interacts with Griet. But she quickly learns to stay out of the way of his moody wife Catharina, played by Essie Davis, as well as avoid the icy stare of his daughter Cornelia and the commanding scrutiny of his mother-in-law Maria, played by Judy Parfitt. Eventually instructed to clean the master’s studio, Griet finally beholds the paintings that will mesmerize generations of future museumgoers with their photographic luminosity. But with Vermeer’s family growing and his financial pressures mounting, the artist must continue to seek the favor of his unsavory patron Pieter van Ruijven, played by Tom Wilkinson. With van Ruijven’s roving eye not limited to Vermeer’s art, Griet finds herself navigating unwanted gazes of both the artistic and non-artistic variety on her unwitting path to scandal and immortality.  

Also featured is Cillian Murphy as a butcher’s son vying for Griet’s attention. 

With little documentation about Vermeer’s life or many details behind his 34 surviving paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring, by necessity, is very much a work of fiction. Author Tracy Chevalier was inspired to write her novel by a poster of the painting that she had kept in her home for 16 years. Fielding interest in the book for a film adaptation prior to publication, Chevalier optioned the rights to British producers with the assurance that the team would honor her wishes that Griet’s relationship with Vermeer would remain unconsummated. The film version was originally set to star Kate Hudson, with Ralph Fiennes as Vermeer. But when Hudson dropped out—reportedly over objections to wearing a wimple throughout most of the film—Fiennes left as well when the wait to cast a replacement conflicted with other commitments. The producers eventually settled on the relatively unknown Peter Webber to direct, who reportedly met with 150 prospects to play Griet before the serendipitous casting of the then 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson. In collaboration with cinematographer Eduardo Serra and production designer Ben van Os, Webber sought to recreate the period through an evocative ambience reminiscent of Vermeer’s paintings. 


Once Upon a River (2019).

This weeks double feature continues with Once Upon a River, a 2019 coming of age drama marking the directorial debut of Haroula Rose.  

Set in 1977, Once Upon a River stars Kenadi DeLaCerna as Margo Crane, a 15-year-old adolescent living in rural Michigan with her father, Bernard, played by Tatanka Means. Part Native American, Margo is still adjusting to the sudden departure of her white mother, who left the family the year before to “find herself.” Adrift and restless, about the only thing that brings Margo any satisfaction is her expert marksmanship, a skill admired—among other things—by her father’s half-brother, Cal Murray. Intrigued by Cal’s invitation to join him on a hunting expedition, Margo’s relationship with her half-uncle takes a disturbingly inappropriate turn that quickly leads to a cascade of tragic events. Suddenly on her own with only her wits, a rifle and the winding river for her escape, Margo embarks on an odyssey to find her mother. After a brief romantic interlude, it’s only when Margo encounters an ailing recluse named Smoke that she begins to learn the real meaning of familial love and commitment.  

Based on the 2011 novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River is a prequel to Campbell’s 2003 novel Q Road, which follows the story of Margo’s yet to be born daughter Rachel as an adolescent. The production was almost halted due to the difficulty in finding the right actress to play Margo, with the casting of Kenadi DeLaCerna confirmed only a few days before the scheduled start of filming. Although theatrical release was squelched by the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was screened at many film festivals, where some audiences expressed discomfort with the ambiguous sexual relationship between Margo and her Uncle Cal. But director Haroula Rose wanted the narrative to dramatize a young woman finding her way in a man’s world, committing the same mistakes granted to adolescent boys in countless coming of age stories. As a musician and song writer, director Rose also designed the film’s soundtrack to be an integral aspect of her final film. And for anyone wondering, yes, Tatanka Means is indeed the son of Native American activist and actor, Russell Means.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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