Hetreed read the novel before its publication, and her husband's production company convinced Chevalier to sell the film rights. Initially, the production was to feature Kate Hudson as Griet with Mike Newell directing. Hudson withdrew shortly before filming began, however, and the film was placed in hiatus until the hire of Webber, who re-initiated the casting process. In this, which was his feature film debut, Webber sought to avoid employing traditional characteristics of the period film drama. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra used distinctive lighting and colour schemes similar to Vermeer's paintings.
Released on 12 December 2003 in North America and on 16 January 2004 in the United Kingdom, Girl with a Pearl Earring earned a worldwide gross of $31,466,789. It garnered a mostly positive critical reception, with a 72% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Critics generally applauded the film's visuals and performances while questioning elements of its story. The film was subsequently nominated for ten British Academy Film Awards, three Academy Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards.
Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is a shy girl living in the Dutch Republic in 1665. Her father, a Delftware painter, has recently gone blind, rendering him unable to work and putting his family in a precarious financial situation. To help matters, Griet is sent to work as a maid in the household of famed painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Griet works hard, almost wordlessly, in the lowest position in a harsh hierarchy, doing her best despite spiteful treatment by one of Vermeer's children. While she is on a routine shopping trip outside the house, a butcher's son, Pieter (Cillian Murphy), notices Griet and falls in love with her, even though she is slow to return his affections.
As Griet cleans Vermeer's studio, which his wife Catharina (Essie Davis) never enters, the painter begins to converse with her and encourages her appreciation of painting, light and color. Vermeer gives her lessons in mixing paints and other tasks, taking care to keep this secret from his wife, who would react with anger and jealousy if she found out that her husband was spending time with Griet. In contrast, Vermeer's pragmatic mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), sees Griet as useful to Vermeer's career.
Vermeer's rich patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), notices Griet on a visit to the Vermeer household and asks the painter if he will give her up to work in his own house, a situation which ruined his former girl-maid. Vermeer refuses, but agrees to paint for Van- Ruijven a portrait of Griet .
As Vermeer secretly works on the eponymous painting, Catharina cannot help but notice something is amiss and her growing jealousy of Griet becomes apparent. As Griet deals with her growing fascination with Vermeer and his talent, she has to fend off Van Ruijven's attempt to rape her. Later, when Catharina is out for the day, her mother hands Griet her daughter's pearl earrings, and asks Vermeer to finish the painting. At the final painting session Vermeer pierces Griet's left earlobe so she can wear one of the earrings for the portrait. Griet then runs to Pieter to be consoled. They caress and make love in a barn, where Pieter proposes marriage, but unexpectedly leaves, whereas she then returns the earrings to Catharina's mother.
Catharina discovers that Griet used her earrings, accuses her mother of complicity, and asks Vermeer show her the Griet's portrait. Heartbroken that he does not consider her worthy of being painted merely because she "doesn't understand"; Catharina tries but fails to destroy the painting. She further banishes Griet from the house forever, to which Vermeer does not object, and let Griet leave. Later, Griet is visited by Vermeer's house cook, who comes bearing her a gift: the blue headscarf she wore in the painting, wrapped around Catharina's pearl earrings.
The production of Girl with a Pearl Earring began in 1999, when screenwriter Olivia Hetreed gained access to the eponymous novel shortly before its publication in August. The novel had not yet become a best-seller, but several groups were beginning to show interest. Hetreed loved the character of Griet and "... her determination to be free in a world where that was almost impossible for a girl from her background." Anand Tucker and Hetreed's husband Andy Paterson – both producers with the small British studio Archer Street Films – approached the novel's author, Tracy Chevalier, for a film adaptation. Chevalier agreed, believing that a British studio would help resist Hollywood's urge "... to sex up the film." She stipulated that their adaptation avoid having the main characters consummate their relationship. Paterson and Tucker promised to "... replicate the 'emotional truth' of the story ...," and Chevalier did not seek to retain control during the film's creative process, though she briefly considered adapting it herself.
Hetreed worked closely with Tucker and Webber to adapt the book, explaining that "... working with them on drafts helped me to concentrate on what the film would be, rather than how beautifully I could make a line work." Her first draft was closest to the source material and it slowly "... developed its own character ..." through rewrites. She avoided using a voiceover, which was present in the novel, "... partly because it would make it very literary." Instead, she focused on conveying Griet's thoughts visually – for example, in her adaptation Griet and Vermeer inspect the camera obscura together under his cloak amidst sexual tension; whereas, in the novel Griet views it alone immediately after him and enjoys the lasting warmth and scent he leaves.
The novel maximises the few known facts of Vermeer's life, which Hetreed described as "... little pillars sticking up out of the dust of history." To learn more about the artist, the screenwriter researched Dutch society in the 17th-century, talked to artist friends about painting, and interviewed a Victoria & Albert Museum art historian who had restored the original artwork. Hetreed stayed in close contact with Chevalier, and the two became so close near the end of the production that they presented a Master class together on screenwriting.
Originally, the American actress Kate Hudson was cast as Griet, having successfully pursued the role from the film's producers. In September 2001, however, Hudson pulled out four weeks before filming began, officially due to "creative differences". Hudson's decision scuppered the production and led to the loss of financial support from the production company Intermedia. It also resulted in the withdrawal of Mike Newell as director and Ralph Fiennes as Vermeer; Fiennes left the project to work on his 2002 film Maid in Manhattan. Due to this incident, The Guardian reported that it "... now seems unlikely that the film will ever be made."
Production started again later that year when the producers hired the relatively unknown British television director Peter Webber to head the project, despite his not having directed a feature film before. Tucker and Paterson already knew Webber from several earlier projects; the director discovered the project by accident after visiting their office, where he noticed a poster of Vermeer's work and began discussing it. Webber read the script and described it as being "... about creativity and the link between art and money and power and sex in some strange unholy mixture." Characterising it as a "coming of age" story with a "fascinating dark undertow," Webber deliberately did not read the book prior to filming, as he was concerned about being influenced by it, opting instead to rely on the script and the period.
The casting of Griet was Webber's first major step, and led to interviews with 150 girls before Webber chose the 17-year-old actress Scarlett Johansson. He felt that she "... just stood out. She had something distinctive about her." Johansson seemed very modern to Webber, but he believed this was a positive attribute, realising "... that what would work was to take this intelligent, zippy girl and repress all that." The actress finished filming Lost in Translation immediately before arriving on set in Luxembourg, and consequently prepared little for the role. She considered the script "beautifully written" and the character "very touching", but did not read the book because she thought it would be better to approach the story with a "clean slate."
After the hiring of Johansson, other major casting decisions quickly followed, beginning with the addition of English actor Colin Firth as Vermeer. Firth and Webber, both of a similar age and background, spent significant time discussing Vermeer's personality and lifestyle in the period leading up to the beginning of filming. While researching the role, Firth realised that Vermeer was "incredibly elusive as an artist." As a result, unlike Webber and Johansson, Firth chose to read the book to gain a better grasp of a man of whom little information existed on his private life. Firth sought to "invent" the character and discover his motivations, and ultimately identified with the artist for having a private space in the midst of a bustling family. Firth also studied painting techniques and visited museums carrying Vermeer works.
After Firth, Webber's next casting decision was Tom Wilkinson as the patron Pieter van Ruijven, who was hired in late 2002. He was soon joined by Judy Parfitt as Vermeer's domineering mother-in-law, and Essie Davis, who portrayed Vermeer's wife Catharina. The Australian daughter of an artist, Davis did not believe her character was the film's "bad guy," as "... [Catharina] has a certain role to play for you to want Griet and Vermeer to be involved." Cillian Murphy, known for his recent role in 28 Days Later, was hired as Pieter, Griet's butcher love interest. Murphy, taking on his first period film role, was interested in serving as a foil to Firth's Vermeer, and representing the "ordinary" world that Griet seeks to avoid upon her meeting the artist. Other cast members included Joanna Scanlan as the maid Tanneke, as well as the young actresses Alakina Mann and Anna Popplewell as Vermeer's daughters, Cornelia and Maertge, respectively.
During preproduction, Webber and cinematographer Eduardo Serra studied the period's artwork and discussed the different moods they wanted to create for each scene. The director was a lover of the Stanley Kubrick period drama Barry Lyndon, but knew that Girl With a Pearl Earring would be different; unlike the former film's "... elaborate and expensive set pieces ...," Webber's production was to be "... about the intimate relationships within a single household." He was not seeking to create a historically accurate biographical film of Vermeer; Webber sought to direct a period film that avoided being "overly slavish" to characteristics of the genre, desiring instead to "... bring the film to life ..." and have viewers "... be able almost to smell the meat in the market." Webber employed little dialogue and drew inspiration from the "... quiet, tense, mysterious, transcendent world ..." of Vermeer's paintings. The director also made a conscious effort to slow the pace of the film, hoping that by "... slowing things down [we could] create these moments in between the dialogue that were full of emotion. And the more silent the film became, the closer it seemed to be to the condition of those Vermeer paintings and the closer it seemed to capture some kind of truth."
The film was budgeted at £10 million. While it is set in Delft, the film was primarily shot in Amsterdam, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Chevalier later remarked that Webber and Serra "... needed absolute control of the space and light they worked with – something they could never achieve by shutting down a busy Delft street for an hour or two." Only a few exterior shots were filmed in Delft.
Webber hired Ben van Os as his production designer because "... he wasn't intimidated by the period obligations. He was much more interested in story and character." For inspiration in constructing the film's sets, Webber and van Os studied the works of Vermeer and other artists of the period, such as Gerard ter Borch. Set designer Todd van Hulzen said the goal was to "... reflect that quiet, sober, almost moralizing ethos that you see in Dutch paintings." They built Vermeer's house on one of Luxembourg's largest film soundstages, a three-story set where they designed rooms that were meant to convey a lack of privacy. According to van Os, the film was about "being observed," so they intended Griet to always feel that she was being watched. In addition, they built two other interior sets to represent the homes of Griet and van Ruijven – Griet's home possessed Calvinistic characteristics while van Ruijven's contained mounted animals to reflect his "predatory nature." The Mauritshuis museum made a high resolution photograph of the actual painting, which was then shot on a rostrum camera to be used in the film.
According to Webber, Serra "... was obsessed with reproducing the amazing use of light by the artists of that period, and most particularly Vermeer's use of it." To reflect the "magical luminosity" of Vermeer's artwork, Serra employed diffused lighting and different film stock when filming scenes in the artist's studio. Webber and Serra did not want to be too reliant on Vermeer's aesthetic, however; they wanted audiences to come away focusing their praise on its story, not its visuals.
In desiring to avoid stereotypes of the costume drama, Webber costumed his actors in simple outfits he termed "period Prada," rather than use the ruffles and baggy costumes common for the era. The intent was to "... take the real clothes from the period and reduce them to their essence." Costume designer Dien van Straalen explored London and Holland markets in search for period fabrics, including curtains and slipcovers. For Griet, van Straalen employed "... pale colors for Scarlett Johansson to give her the drab look of a poor servant girl." Firth was also outfitted simply, as Vermeer was not rich. Van Straalen created more elaborate costumes for Wilkinson, as van Ruijven was to her "... a peacock strutting around with his money."
Make-up and hair designer Jenny Shircore desired that Griet appear without make-up, so Johansson was given very little; rather, Shircore focused on maintaining the actress' skin as "... milky, thick and creamy ...," and bleached her eyebrows. They gave Davis as Catharina a "... very simple Dutch hairstyle ...," which they learned from studying drawings and prints of the period.
The musical score for Girl with a Pearl Earring was written by the French composer Alexandre Desplat. Webber decided to hire Desplat after hearing a score he had composed for a Jacques Audiard film. Webber explained, "He had a sense of restraint and a sense of lyricism that I liked. I remember the first time I saw the cue where Griet opens the shutters. He was really describing what the light was doing, articulating that in a musical sphere." Desplat was then known primarily for scoring films in his native language.
The score employs strings, piano, and woodwinds, with a central theme featuring a variety of instrumental forms. Desplat created a melody that recurs throughout the film, stating in a later interview that "... it evolves and it's much more flowing with a very gentle theme that's haunting." The score, his career breakthrough, gained him international attention and garnered him further film projects. The soundtrack was released in 2004; it earned a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, helping increase Desplat's name recognition in Hollywood.
Desplat's work also garnered positive reviews. The New York Times described it as a "... gorgeous score ..." which "... brushes in a haunted gloom that gives the picture life where none seems to exist ...," whilst Boston.com said it "... burbles with elegant baroque minimalism." Empire magazine called his score "... a supremely elegant work ..." that "... creates a captivating atmosphere of cautious emotion and wonderment, the true highlight being 'Colours in the Clouds', so simply majestic that it really captures the heart of the story."
In the interest of shortening the adaptation, approximately one-third of the story was eventually edited out; entire subplots and characters were removed. Before becoming a screenwriter Hetreed worked as an editor, and credits this experience for knowing "... about structure and what you need to say and what you can leave out. I am a big enthusiast for leaving things out." She focused the story on the relationship between Griet and Vermeer, deciding what other storylines were "... distracting and had to be jettisoned. Before editing, there was great stuff there, but Peter was fantastically ruthless." Changes from the novel did not bother Chevalier, who felt that as a result the film gained "... a focused, driven plot and a sumptuous visual feast."
According to Webber, Girl with a Pearl Earring is "... more than just a quaint little film about art ..." but is concerned with themes of money, sex, repression, obsession, power, and the human heart. Laura M. Sager Eidt in her book, Writing and Filming the Painting: Ekphrasis in Literature and Film, asserts that the film deviates significantly from the source material and emphasises a "... socio-political dimension that is subtler in the novel." Girl with a Pearl Earring, Sager Eidt says, "... shifts its focus from a young girl's evolving consciousness to the class and power relations in the story."
In his work, Film England: Culturally English Filmmaking Since the 1990s, author Andrew Higson notes that the film overcomes the novel's "subjective narration" device by having the camera stay fixed on Griet for much of the film. But, Higson says, "... no effort is made to actually render her point of view as the point of view of the film or the spectator."
Vermeer channels Griet's sexual awakening into his painting, with the piercing of her ear and his directives to her posing being inherently sexual. In the opinion of psychologist Rosemary Rizq, the pearl Griet dons is a metaphor, something which normally would convey wealth and status. But, when worn by Griet the pearl is also a directive to the audience to look at the "... psychological potential within ..." her erotic, unconsummated bond with Vermeer, unclear up to that point if it is real or not.
The film incorporates seven of Vermeer's paintings into its story. Thomas Leitch, in his book Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ, writes that while Chevalier's Griet describes ten Vermeer paintings (without naming them), Webber's film avoids "... show[ing] an external world that looks like a series of Vermeer paintings ...," as this would have been a trivialisation of the artist's achievements. Leitch adds the director "... compromises by showing far fewer actual Vermeer paintings than Chevalier's Griet describes but lingering longer over the visual particulars of the studio in which he creates them."
Girl With a Pearl Earring's world premiere occurred at the Telluride Film Festival on 31 August 2003. In North America it was distributed by Lions Gate Entertainment. The film was limited in release to seven cinemas on 12 December 2003, landing in 32nd place for the week with $89,472. Lions Gate slowly increased its release to a peak of 402 cinemas by 6 February 2004. Its total domestic gross was $11,670,971.
The film was released in the United Kingdom on 16 January 2004 by Pathé Films. In its opening week, the film finished in tenth place with a total of £384,498 from 106 cinemas. In the UK and Ireland, the film finished in 14th place for the year with a total box office gross of £3.84 million. It had a worldwide gross of $31,466,789.
In the US, the Girl With a Pearl Earring DVD was released on 4 May 2004 by Lions Gate. The Region 2 DVD's release on 31 May 2004 included audio commentaries from Webber, Paterson, Hetreed, and Chevalier; a featurette on "The Art of Filmmaking"; and eight deleted scenes.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes calculated a 72% approval rating based on reviews from 174 critics, with an average score of 6.8/10. The website reported the critical consensus as "... visually arresting, but the story could be told with a bit more energy." Critical reception of Girl With a Pearl Earring was mixed, with reviewers positively emphasising the film's visuals and performances while questioning elements of its story. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann, writing for The Guardian, praised the film for its "... sumptuous design and incredible Vermeerish appearance ..." but felt that "... it's a bit too much like watching paint dry." In The Observer, Philip French referred to the film as "... quiet, intelligent and well-acted ..." and believed that "... most people will be impressed by, and carry away in their mind's eye, the film's appearance ... [Serra, van Os, and van Strallen] have given the movie a self-conscious beauty."
The BBC's review, written by Susan Hodgetts, described the film as "... a superior British costume drama that expertly mixes art history with romantic fiction ...," which would appeal to "... anyone who likes serious, intelligent drama and gentle erotic tension." Hodgetts said that both Firth and Johansson gave "excellent" performances who did "... a grand job of expressing feelings and emotions without the use of much dialogue, and the picture is the better for it." Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times called the film an "... earnest, obvious melodrama with no soul, filled with the longing silences that come after a sigh." Mitchell did however laud its cinematography, production design, and musical score, as did the Film Journal International's Erica Abeel. Despite praising its visuals, Abeel criticized Girl with a Pearl Earring for being "... a chick flick dressed up in Old Master clothes ..." and for failing "... to render Griet's growing artistic sensibility dramatically credible." She cited its melodramatic villains as another failing, but concluded that it was "... to Johansson's credit that she alone pulls something plausible out of her character."
Sandra Hall of The Sydney Morning Herald praised Webber's ability to "... build individual moments [such as] the crackle of a bed-sheet which has grown an ice overcoat after being hung out to dry in the wintry air ...," but opined that he failed to "... invest these elegant reproductions of the art of the period with the emotional charge you've been set up to expect." Griet and Vermeer's relationship, Hall wrote, lacked "... the sense of two people breathing easily in one another's company." Owen Gleiberman, writing for Entertainment Weekly, remarked that Girl with a Pearl Earring "... brings off something that few dramas about artists do. It gets you to see the world through new – which is to say, old – eyes." Gleiberman added that while Johansson is silent for most of the film, "... the interplay on her face of fear, ignorance, curiosity, and sex is intensely dramatic." In Sight & Sound, David Jays wrote that "Johansson's marvellous performance builds on the complex innocence of her screen presence (Ghost World, Lost in Translation)." Jays concluded his review by praising Webber and Serra's ability to "... deftly deploy daylight, candle and shadow, denying our desire to see clearly just as Vermeer refuses to explicate the situations in his paintings. The film's scenarios may be unsurprising, but Webber's solemn evocation of art in a grey world gives his story an apt, unspoken gravity."