Vermeer's "Pearl" Still Stirs Firth

TORONTO--Colin Firth was a fan of Jan Vermeer before he was invited to play the 17th-century Dutch painter in Girl With a Pearl Earring.

In the movie, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (January 16), Firth (Bridget Jones's Diary) plays the not-so-old master in his prime. American-indie-film It Girl Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) plays Griet, the 17-year-old servant with a pearl who models for Vermeer's masterpiece but scandalizes his family and almost destroys her life in the process.

Sitting across the table at the crowded bar of the InterContinental hotel during last September's Toronto International Film Festival, Firth is dressed in jeans and a turtleneck. He could pass for either someone who's just been plucked out of a previous century or the inspiring university professor every student has a crush on. Firth takes a sip from his Diet Coke before discussing--in the same thoughtful, brooding, and articulate manner that makes him such a successful romantic lead--his passion for Vermeer's paintings.

"They're just sort of achingly beautiful, though you can't really figure out why. They elude any way, anything you might have to say about them or any opinion you form or feel about them. Many think they're serene, but that doesn't seem quite right. Many think they're stern, but you realize that's an absurd thing to say about them. They're these terribly conventional subject matters that just seem to shift about in what they are, and I just fell in love with them years ago."

Firth was in New York on the promotional tour for Shakespeare in Love when he went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to check out the Michelangelo Caravaggios and spotted Vermeer's Woman With a Water Jug. It was love at first sight. "It's not quite gentle, it's more intense than that. It's a quiet painting. It's mind-blowing, absolutely mind-blowing that something that's so withdrawn could be so powerful."

It wasn't Firth's passion for Vermeer's work that drew him to Girl With a Pearl Earring, though. "I was sent the script, liked it, and said yes," the actor recalls. "I hadn't done a drama for a while, I'd been doing light comedy. The book [by Tracy Chevalier] had quite a bit of buzz about it--I could just feel it having a shot really at being a nice movie."

He was also intrigued by the idea of a role that relied more on imagery and acting than dialogue; unlike most period pieces, which tend to be heavy on the talk, this one isn't populated with people spouting witty Jane Austení‚ ­esque soliloquies. "This is a man whose self-expression is very limited, and he's seen through her eyes, of course," Firth says. "And she's the help--she's not allowed to speak to the master and, according to the convention of the time, he's not even supposed to look at her or talk to her at all except to give her an instruction. So you know there was not a great deal of freedom of communication between these two people, so everything had to be operated within nuance, and those are the challenges. I loved meeting them. The actor's job is to provide nuance in the words that someone else has written and--in a case where there aren't even any words--it's just you, it's just you doing your job."

In order to help convey those shadings, first-time film director Peter Webber framed and shot scenes like a series of classic paintings. "The lighting is almost a character in the film," Firth says.

After he signed on for Pearl Earring, Firth made a pilgrimage to Holland to see more of Vermeer's work. "I went to see stuff I didn't know," he says. "We only have 35 Vermeers in the world. We don't know if he painted any more than that--perhaps he didn't. Rembrandt was coming up with that many drawing in a week, you know. So there are very few, and even fewer that I think have that incredible power. And there are seven of them in Holland. And Girl With a Pearl Earring is in the Hague and the View of Delft--which is one of the most astonishing paintings you'll ever see--is in the same room."

Firth almost glows as he spends several minutes describing View of Delft using words like vibrant and luminescent and urges me--urges everyone--to see them in person. Then he stops himself and looks almost embarrassed. "I mean, this all sounds like bullshit talking about art at all, but it's... I don't think you have to have any particular refined sensibilities, because I certainly don't. I knew what I liked, but I've never been an expert."

So, did spending all that time with Vermeer's work help him portray the character? Firth smiles. "I don't know if it did me any good, but it was a lot of fun."