Flip on a TV, check your e-mail, page through US Weekly at the checkout line, and Scarlett Johansson is there, the anointed It girl of the moment. Although such honors are usually pretty dubious (anyone remember Maggie Gyllenhaal or Julia Stiles?), Johansson certainly deserves the attention: Over the last few years, she has intrigued audiences with her preternatural gravity, hauteur and rich vocal timbre in such films as Ghost World, The Man Who Wasn't There, the little-seen American Rhapsody and, going back to a early child role, Manny and Lo. In particular, her sly, frankly chilly performance as Rebecca in Ghost World was a sturdy match for Thora Birch's formidable Enid, creating a supporting character strong enough to demand her own movie.
At times, Johansson can seem to be more of a hip presence than an actress, but her cool self-assurance made her an effective foil to Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. (Has any other woman actor ever been permitted to gaze so contemptuously at the people around her--without being punished for it?) However, in Girl With a Pearl Earring, which opens this Friday, she does an effectively self-effacing turn as a meek servant in 17th century Holland, a role that allows no openings for the very contemporary irony that is her stock in trade.
Girl With a Pearl Earring is something of a coffee-table movie, full of gorgeously inert images and mad fetishizing of a vanished cultural era. Based on Tracy Chevalier's best-seller of the same name, Pearl Earring is a fictitious imagining of the creation of one of Vermeer's most striking paintings. In this story, Vermeer (Colin Firth) is a hen-pecked genius who's trapped in a house full of possessive and querulous women. Things don't get any more harmonious when Johansson's Griet joins the household, but the painter takes a liking to her. Soon, she's mixing paint and modeling for him.
Although there's an undeniable appeal to the laboriously recreated scenes of Dutch urban living, the process of creation is banalized here, as in so many other historical movies about art and artists. As for Johansson, Girl With a Pearl Earring isn't going to raise her profile much, but it's ample evidence of her ability--and willingness--to disappear and shrink into a distant, historical role.