A light touch

Film - Mark Kermode is dazzled by a masterful attempt to bring Vermeer's paintings to life

Never underestimate the power of movies to bring high culture to a lowbrow audience. Some years ago, the director William Friedkin attempted to engage me in a discussion of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer - unremarkable, were it not that I was attempting to talk to him about the projectile vomiting scene from his horror classic The Exorcist at the time. Dismayed that I had never experienced any of the Dutch masters at close quarters, Friedkin despatched me to a London gallery bedecked with atmospheric paintings, and thence to a bookshop to purchase Girl With a Pearl Earring, a recently published novel, which I duly failed to read. Now, in the peculiar tradition of films ranging from Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life to John Maybury's Love is the Devil, the daunting prospect of fine art (not to mention acclaimed literature) is made palatable via the medium of mainstream movie-making, with impressively uplifting results.

In 17th-century Holland, the lowly maidservant Griet becomes the muse for a celebrated painter who captures the clarity of daylight on canvas, but who is imprisoned by the demands of his expanding family, and by his reliance on the patronage of boorish nobility. Finding himself unexpectedly in the company of a kindred artistic spirit, Vermeer (Colin Firth) turns his camera obscura on the enigmatic Griet (Scarlett Johansson) to conjure a picture, the soul-piercing intimacy of which is dismissed by his wife as "obscene". Meanwhile, the butcher's boy Pieter (Cillian Murphy) waits longingly in the shadows, while the randy moneybags Master van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) uses his purse strings to snare Griet in his baser coils.

If film-making is indeed the art of turning money into light, then this ambitious musing on the most enigmatic pout since the Mona Lisa should have cost an absolute fortune. Intelligently adapted from Tracy Chevalier's first-person novel by the screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, director Peter Webber's breathtaking first feature is a dazzling accomplishment - a tale of erotic intrigue that eschews dialogue (or, more importantly, voice-over) in favour of strangely familiar visual imagery. At the heart of its eye-catching spell are the production designs of Ben van Os, who fills Vermeer's house with interlocking frames of half-open doorways and voyeuristic corridors; and the images of the cinematographer Eduardo Serra, the visionary maestro behind Map of the Human Heart and The Wings of the Dove, who brushes his celluloid with the painterly strokes of an Old Master.

On a casting level, too, the film-makers have struck gold. Having won hearts and minds with her sharp portraits of alienated youth in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer and Terry Zwigoff's quirky Ghost World, Scarlett Johansson is currently the hottest ticket in town thanks to her standout turn in Sofia Coppola's sardonic Lost in Translation. With a handful of lines and a barrel-load of meaningful glances, Johansson turns a potentially simpering role into an engaging picture of repressed angst, conjuring a forceful young woman who tellingly removes a chair from Vermeer's Woman With a Water Jug because "she looked trapped". As the perfect foil to Johansson's edgy presence, Colin Firth provides a satisfyingly safe pair of hands, pulling on the period pants with the ease of one who knows he's in his element without ever descending to the narcissistic soft-pedalling demanded of his "sex symbol" status. Top marks, too, to Tom Wilkinson, who oozes malodorous intent from every pore as the slimy van Ruijven, and the rising star Cillian Murphy, who makes the most of an underwritten role as Griet's social equal and prospective paramour - a constant reminder of the more down-to-earth life for which she could so easily (and believably) have settled.

With such plaudits to its name (and major awards very likely to follow in its wake), the only turn-off about Girl With a Pearl Earring is the spectre of the prissy, middle-class audiences that will doubtless try to claim it as their own. Already, film studies lecturers crushed by the prospect of reading yet another essay about the eroticism of Harvey Keitel discovering a hole in Holly Hunter's stockings in The Piano should be bracing themselves for an onslaught of earnest readings of Firth piercing Johansson's earlobe with symbolically blood-spilling results.

Similarly, those who champion the artistic validity of sexually explicit screen imagery in films such as Bernardo Bertolucci's forthcoming The Dreamers should now get used to being lectured at length about the "superior" sexiness of Griet being commanded to lick her lower lip: not once (seduction); not twice (foreplay); but three times (use your imagination).

None of which is to suggest that the film courts such stuffy champions - on the contrary, its impressively accommodating approach flies in the face of cultural elitism, and actively encourages mainstream affection. Let's hope this highbrow endeavour finds the broad-strokes audience that it deserves.

Girl With a Pearl Earring (12a) opens on 16 January