Dir: Peter Webber. UK/Luxembourg. 2003. 95 mins

Crafted with all the delicate judgement and fine brushstrokes of an Old Master, Girl With A Pearl Earring is an exquisitely understated period drama rich in atmosphere and emotion.

A faithful adaptation of the Tracey Chevalier best-seller, this marks an auspicious feature debut from director Peter Webber that should find favour with discerning, upscale audiences all around the world. The strength of critical support and the extent of interest in the spellbinding central performance of rising star Scarlet Johansson will determine exactly how far the film can travel. Set in the Delft of 17th century Holland, Girl With A Pearl Earring tells of a young servant girl Griet (Johansson) who is sent to work in the household of the painter Johannes Vermeer (Firth).

It is a household dominated by the influence of Vermeer's imperious, penny pinching mother Maria (Parfitt) and his jealous wife Catharina (Davis). The artist's studio is hallowed ground in which only the few can tread. Griet is ordered to clean it. Her sensitivity to his work wins his trust and eventually inspires a bond between them that transcends all the barriers of class and circumstance that might otherwise have separated them.

Unfolding with an economy and subtlety that is hard to fault, Girl With A Pearl Earring looks an absolute treat. Vermeer's paintings come to life in the dappled light of wintry landscapes and the dusty darkness of candle lit interiors. Frozen clothes on a washing line, gleaming, polished cutlery at a dinner table and the dedicated preparation of vegetables and fowl for a special meal are just some of the detail that combine to create a glowing, utterly convincing picture of a long ago world.

The film's strength lies in a mesmerising recreation of the period that is allied to emotions that are timeless. An artist torn between his dutiful wife and a servant girl with a much more profound understanding of his art, Vermeer becomes an entirely human figure even as we also learn of his painstaking technique and a life spent at the constant mercy of a rich patron.

Griet may be a servant girl with a handsome offer of marriage from butcher's son Peter (Murphy) but it is entirely understandable that she should feel the frustration of wanting more once Vermeer allows her to see the colours of the world through his eyes.

Distinguished by glorious cinematography and production design, this is a film that deals in the implicit rather than the explicit. Meaning is found in lingering glances and painful intimacy rather than bold statements or flamboyant drama. In this respect, Scarlet Johansson's central performance is a revelation. As luminous as pale moonlight, she has the ability to let her features become a map of her character's emotions, registering wide-eyed wonder, shame, enchantment or scalding injustice with little more than a hint of a smile or a modest look. The performance marks her out as a young actress with the promise of greatness in her future and is sure to win the film the attention it deserves.

Prod Co...Archer Street
Int'l sales...Pathe International UK. Tel: 0207 462 4427. E-mail: international.sales@pathe-uk.com
Prods...Andy Paterson, Anand Tucker
Exec prods...Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Duncan Reid, Tom Ortenberg, Peter Block, Nick Drake, Philip Erdoes, Daria Jovicic
Scr...Olivia Hetreed based on the novel by Tracey Chevalier
Cinematography...Eduardo Serra
Prod des...Ben Van Os
Ed...Kate Evans
Music...Alexandre Desplat
Main cast...Colin Firth, Scarlet Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy, Essie Davis.