Director Peter Webber has such a mesmerizing command over the emotional resonance of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" -- a masterpiece film that imagines the story behind Johannes Vermeer's masterpiece painting -- that there are several moments in the picture so evocative, so stunning that they literally make you hold your breath.
One such moment comes as the Dutch master, played with alluring, untamed gravitas by the solemnly magnetic Colin Firth, cajoles his tentative, spellbound model -- a modest, reticent young housemaid (the extraordinary Scarlett Johansson) who has slowly become his muse and artistic confidant -- to wet her lips (and then wet them again, and again) as he readies her to pose for his most famous, most exquisitely lifelike and certainly most emotionally enigmatic portrait.
This scene is the culmination of an unspoken, unattainable desire between them and is a magnificent fusion of performance, intimacy and sudden, startling silences in Alexandre Desplat's stirring musical score -- the combination of which is a demonstrative potency that Webber manipulates at will.
The director holds sway over such powerfully visceral effects throughout this film, set in the beautifully gritty and gray, canal-traversed city of Delft, Holland, circa 1665, where Vermeer was fatefully beholden to a wealthy but lascivious and manipulative patron (played with oily charisma by the always terrific Tom Wilkinson) for his livelihood.
Into his household comes Griet (Johansson), a sheltered 17-year-old who has been forced into servitude to help support her family after her father, a journeyman tile painter, was blinded and badly disfigured in an accident. Johansson hardly speaks in her enthralling performance of tentative glances and internalized passions kept tightly wound under her simple white bonnet. Yet she portrays an enormous sense of wonder as Griet's natural acumen for recognizing beauty and composition draws her each day to study the progress of her master's paintings as she cleans his studio.
Recognizing a kindred spirit in the unadorned beauty's innate comprehension of his work, Vermeer is soon drawn to her as well -- a fact that sets in motion a tantalizing mentorship, the jealousy of his vulnerable and volatile wife (played to mistrustful perfection by Essie Davis), the spite of his most mischievous daughter (Alakina Mann), and the unnerving manipulations of his Machiavellian benefactor.
Adapted from Tracy Chevalier's speculative novel by screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" brings its 17th century setting vividly to life with humble costuming and imaginative, often metaphorical imagery inspired in part by Vermeer's work. Webber's fluid command of the film's heightened emotions proves more remarkable by the minute as Johansson (departing appreciably from her perfect modern melancholy in "Lost in Translation") and Firth ("Pride and Prejudice," "Bridget Jones's Diary") build a halting but inescapable yearning between them that is tested by thorny circumstances that lead to the painting of Griet's portrait and the acquisition of the famous earring at its focal point.
All this builds toward another of the picture's breathtaking moments, when Johansson strikes the painting's over-the-shoulder pose and her resemblance to its unknown subject becomes dramatically clear.
Just as the piercing poignancy of Vermeer's work of art can be felt influencing every aspect of the movie -- especially in Johansson's haunting personification of portrait's elusive potency -- the fictitious backstory of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" has such a vivid depth and breadth that it's hard to imagine looking at the painting again without being influenced by the film.
That is an exceptional testament to the power of this cinematic tour de force.