Brush with Greitness: Nobody home at the Vermeers'

Subtlety can be a virtue in movies, especially since it's such a rare commodity in Hollywood. But like anything else in cinema, it can be overused.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is about people who lived in subtler times, and despite director Peter Webber's attempt to immerse us in their world, "What's the big deal?" would be an appropriate response from a modern viewer.

On a purely visual level, the film is more successful. They've done a magnificent job of recreating Delft, Holland, in 1665, and Eduardo Serra has photographed it with a painterly eye; but as they haven't spared themselves in creating this world, they spare none of our time showing it off.

The plot is so simple there's plenty of time to fill with atmosphere. Scarlett Johansson plays 17-year-old Griet, who– to help her family with expenses– takes a job as a maid in the household of painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth).

It's as dysfunctional a family as you could ask for. Catharina (Essie Davis) turns out babies as regularly as Vermeer does paintings and has all the mood swings associated with pregnancy. Her mother, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), really runs things, doing whatever it takes to keep her son-in-law productive.

The oldest child, Cornelia (Alakina Mann of The Others), 12, takes an instant dislike to Griet; and as her father shows an interest in the new maid, the other women of the house follow the child's lead, including head housekeeper Tanneke (Joanna Scanlan).

Griet catches the eye of the butcher's son, Pieter (Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later), because she's the only maid in town with a nose for rotten meat. She impresses her master because, though illiterate, she has an innate sense for things artistic. When told to clean the windows in his studio, she hesitates because it will change the light. Later she moves a chair to improve the composition of a painting.

Also impressed with Griet is Vermeer's patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who commissions a painting of her, apparently out of prurient interest. The artist is said to have gotten a previous maid pregnant when he painted her, so the stage is set for some steamy action.

It's much ado about nothing. He's strictly hands-off while painting the fully clothed Griet, albeit with a certain amount of heavy breathing. The most scandalous thing he does is to borrow his wife's earrings for her to wear in the painting.

Apparently there's little enough known about Vermeer's life that this speculative fiction, created by Tracy Chevalier in the source novel, fits the known facts.

The international cast manage a reasonable cohesiveness and do what they can to pretend something is really happening. Johansson is a curious but wise choice to play Griet. Known for contemporary roles (Ghost World, Lost in Translation) she has less trouble fitting in a period setting than, say, Keanu Reeves.

Girl with a Pearl Earring gives you a tour of a fabulous house, but there's nobody home.