Home > Reviews > GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING – Alexandre Desplat


December 12, 2003 Leave a comment Go to comments

girlwithapearlearringOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch baroque painter who lived in the city of Delft from 1632-1675, and left behind him a legacy of art that can equal that of other Dutch masters such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt. One of his most famous works is entitled “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, painted around 1665, and currently on display in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. Although much of Vermeer’s life is undocumented, Tracey Chevalier’s celebrated novel romanticized the creation of this famous piece of art – and is now the inspiration for the directorial debut of Peter Webber. Colin Firth stars as Vermeer, a talented yet tortured painter, trapped in a loveless marriage to the whiny, perpetually pregnant Catharina (Essie Davis), domineered by his mother in-law (Judy Parfitt), and harassed by his lecherous patron and chief source of funding, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). However, into Vermeer’s household comes a young peasant girl named Griet (Scarlett Johansson), who after a while becomes more interested in Vermeer’s work, and in Vermeer himself. Gradually, the two become attracted to each other, and Griet begins to “sit” for Vermeer (resulting in the famous painting) – much to the disgust of his wife, and Griet’s potential suitor Pieter (Cillian Murphy).

Acclaimed by the most respected critics, Girl with a Pearl Earring has been singled out for three elements: Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Griet, Eduardo Serra’s luminous, almost artistic cinematography, and its score. The task of writing the score for Girl With a Pearl Earring fell to Frenchman Alexandre Desplat, a composer who is probably unfamiliar to many North American score fans, but who has enjoyed a successful career in Europe with scores such as “Un Héros Très Descret”, “Sur Mes Lèvres” and “The Luzhin Defence”. Desplat is very much a composer of the “old school”, with a defiantly classical sound and a richness in tone and texture. Already a Golden Globe nominee for Best Score, Desplat’s work here, at this early stage, looks to be in the running as one of 2004’s highlights.

A sort of combination of the undulating strings of John Williams’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence with the romantic minimalist stylistic of Philip Glass (such as Kundun), or Michael Nyman’s more approachable works, Girl with a Pearl Earring gently captivates the listener with cue after cue of shimmering string work, iridescent harp scales, an array of sparkly chimes and glockenspiels, and haunting themes which capture the period beautifully. Moody woodwinds play an important part, notably in the central piece, ‘Griet’s Theme’, which pits an introverted bass flute melody against eddying strings, before embracing a kind of Glass-style starkness. There are few recapitulations – towards the end of ‘The Birth Feast’, in ‘Winter Nights’, as a mournful violin/woodwind duet in ‘Home’, but this is far being from a one-theme score.

‘A New Life’ is slightly more sprightly, heading into waltz-time with a playful brass refrain; a sense of wonderment permeates ‘Camera Obscura’, while ‘The Birth Feast” explodes into heraldic joy and happiness through a series of buoyant brass blasts and string runs. Darker material is present as well, with the brooding scherzos in ‘The Master’s House’, ‘Cornelia’ and ‘Catharina’s Pearls’ lending a certain sense of unease to things, and the groaning, tick-tock theme for ‘Van Ruijven’ illustrating his rather unhealthy interest in young Griet. Desplat’s sensitive piano solos enliven ‘Vermeer’s Studio’, and take center stage in the lovely ‘Silence and Light’, while the moving ‘Colours in the Clouds’ stands as one of the highlight cues, building from a series of impressionistic chords into a magnificent romantic opus, filled with a sense of wonderment and awakening.

The exquisite touch Desplat brings to his score for Girl with a Pearl Earring is both surprising, and is very welcome, especially to a review who has had his fill of drum-beat action scores and the onset of electronica. Desplat has an almost old-fashioned way with his music, and his scores draw out the emotion and drama in his films without resorting to histrionics or schmaltz, while remaining wholly beautiful and approachable. Admirers of delicately balanced orchestral scores, and of the more classically-influenced film composers would be well advised to seek out Girl with a Pearl Earring. I hope that his recent acclaim will lead to an increase in Alexandre Desplat’s profile, both among collectors, and in the international film community as a whole.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring (2:20)
  • Griet’s Theme (4:10)
  • A New Life (3:08)
  • The Master’s House (3:19)
  • Camera Obscura (1:35)
  • The Birth Feast (2:49)
  • Cornelia (1:46)
  • Vermeer’s Studio (3:11)
  • Winter Nights (2:10)
  • Van Ruijven (3:34)
  • Home (1:17)
  • Colours in the Clouds (3:30)
  • The Master is Painting (2:09)
  • By the Canal with Pieter (1:48)
  • Catharina’s Pearls (1:25)
  • Colours in the Clouds (Strings) (3:29)
  • Girl with a Pearl Earring (Reprise) (2:21)
  • Silence and Light (Piano Solo) (1:42)
  • Griet’s Theme (Reprise) (4:21)
  • Griet Remembers (1:09)

Running Time: 51 minutes 13 seconds

Decca 475-537-2 (2003)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The Pro Arte Orchestra of London. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat. Recorded and mixed by John Timperley. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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