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Mixing Agendas in “The Statement” and Mixing Paints in “Girl with a Pearl Earring”

Mixing Agendas in "The Statement" and Mixing Paints in "Girl with a Pearl Earring"

Mixing Agendas in “The Statement” and Mixing Paints in “Girl with a Pearl Earring”

by Peter Brunette

John Neville and Tilda Swinton from Norman Jewison’s “The Statement.” Image by Jerome Prebois, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Like so many films these days, “The Statement” seems fatally compromised by its conflicting agendas. On the one hand, as a thriller, which accompanying press materials suggest it wants very badly to be taken as, it’s quite involving. However, I can’t stop wondering about the ethical propriety of using the Holocaust as a colorful, exciting background for fun and games. And I’m not even Jewish.

Veteran Canadian director Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night,” “Moonstruck,” “The Hurricane”) has, during four decades of filmmaking, obviously steeped himself in the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and it shows. Bernard Herrmann-like music, a highly mobile, willful camera, and masterful, crisp editing grab us — if on the relatively shallow level of pure excitement — from the very first seconds of the film. (There’s even an exciting, Ur-Hitchcockian rooftop chase near the end.) But then those pesky, weighty issues of good and evil keep popping up, which, by their very nature, demand to be treated seriously. Their appearance threatens to make the movie so much more than it is, and in the process, they end up, alas, making it less than it otherwise would be.

This ambivalence seeps into the character portrayals as well. Thus, when we first encounter Pierre Brossard (Michael Caine), a Frenchman who collaborated with the Nazis and who is now, 50 years later, being sought by a number of different groups, he is portrayed as a complex combination of weakling and man of faith, a subtle delineation of a fascist in the vein of Marcello Clerici in Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” and the misfit anti-hero of Louis Malle’s film “Lacombe, Lucien.” The initial subtlety of this portrayal leads to an equally subtle love/hate relationship with the character on the part of the audience, which Caine exploits to the fullest. About halfway through, though, the subtlety is tossed out the window when Caine’s wife (Charlotte Rampling) accuses him of being a racist hatemonger and offers enough concrete examples to alienate us from him for the remainder of the film. (And just in case we’re still not convinced, he mistreats her dog.) This is standard operating procedure for a thriller, of course, where characters must be boldly outlined, but the themes touched upon in the film had originally promised so much more (a plausible postwar case for anti-communism, the theological justification for Catholic anti-democratic sentiments, and so on).

Caine is by far the best thing about the film, even if the performance is quite not up to the one he pulled off last year in “The Quiet American.” Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam, on the other hand, are much less convincing as the team of government investigators chasing Caine, and the film tends to lose its head of steam when they appear. Swinton, especially, is just too quintessentially British (at least to these American eyes) to be believable as a French judge. In fact, the punishingly inept translation of cultures is the film’s weakest aspect. In this France, everybody speaks English, which is weird enough, but, OK, it’s a movie, but some speak it with a French accent and some with a Cockney accent. After a while, especially given Caine’s own quintessential Britishness, you’re not even sure what country you’re in. The height of ridiculousness in this vein occurs when a Frenchman is describing a crime on French TV in English, but the scroll at the bottom is in French.

Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth in a scene from Peter Webber’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Image courtesy of Lions Gate Films.

“The Girl with the Pearl Earring” aspires to be as beautiful as a Vermeer painting and almost succeeds. It’s an agreeably slow, absolute visual delight that must be seen on the big screen to be properly appreciated, especially since the filmmakers’ obsession with the nuances of light approaches the painter’s own. Scarlett Johansson is (literally) luminous in the role of Griet, a maid in Vermeer’s household who, as posited by the original novel by Tracy Chevalier, was the inspiration for the painter’s most famous work.

Whatever problems the film has stem more from the original novel than from any failure of imagination or execution on the part of the filmmakers. For one thing, it is difficult to credit the notion of the middle-class Vermeer teaching a lowly, illiterate maid how to mix paints and appreciate the colors of the sky (as well as his paintings) in the 16th century, simply because he has become entranced by her beauty. (Even more improbably, she mumbles something about his having “looked into her very soul” when she sees a completed painting she’s modeled for.) It’s pretty to think of things in this romantic vein, and clearly fun for a lot of people, but not very realistic. At the risk of appearing mortally snobbish, I must also say that the exploration of aesthetic issues here is thoroughly middle-brow and aimed at what most people who pack blockbuster exhibitions of the impressionists, Van Gogh, and, yes, Vermeer, are already looking to get from art. What’s best on the level of ideas is the film’s constant, welcome insistence on the financial context within which all art is condemned to take place, even if cultural conservatives don’t like to believe it.

Colin Firth is stolid, uncommunicative, and inscrutable as the painter (this is a compliment), but while Johansson is visually superb as Griet (even if the unending close-ups finally become tiresome), she is less sure in her performance. Judy Parfitt is workmanlike in the clichéd role of the scheming mother-in-law, as is Tom Wilkinson playing the Vermeer’s randy patron, but Essie Davis’ performance as Vermeer’s spoiled wife is sublime and subtle all at once. Great things are in store for her.

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