20/07/2010

ON A FIRTHIAN EDUCATION - MASTER VERMEER AND A SINGLE MAN

In my attempt to catch up with such an incredibly rich and active career as Colin Firth’s, I ‘ve been recently very lucky and managed to watch two wonderful films in one day: Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) and A Single Man (2009). I really can’t tell you which one I liked more because I did liked both very much though in different ways.


In “Girl with a Pearl Earring” I loved the costume movie and the poetry of colours. Not as much the story, actually. This film, adapted from a work of fiction by Tracy Chevalier, tells about the events surrounding the creation of the painting "Girl With A Pearl Earring" by 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Little is known about the girl in the painting, it is speculated that she was a maid who lived in the house of the painter along with his family and other servants, though there is no historical evidence .

The film , set in 1665, is not only about art and the creation of a masterpiece but it is also about exploitation and how a young woman attempts to resist a system designed to make her a vulnerable victim.This was the aspect I most appreciated in the plot .  Griet is a Protestant among Catholics, a generous woman in a world of selfish human beings, a poor honest girl in a household full of pretences . But she is strong-willed, only apparently fragile. And she has a gift, she understands art and she has a special sensitivity for colours, this is why Vermeer, the master, choses her. Not for his lust but for his art. Anyhow, Griet feels trapped, not free, like the maid servant ( a dummy) Vermeer was painting among a chair, a table, a window and a wall… Griet dares move the chair from the place the painter had put it. When he asks her why she answers directly and simply , “she was trapped”. In Vermeer’s paintings his maids are quite passive, Griet does not accept her destiny passively.
Griet is despised by Johannes Vermeer’s permanently pregnant wife and by her wicked children. Vermeer as a painter is patronized by the lecherous merchant Van Ruijven who wants Griet in his house and even tries to rape her. But she resists.


She has got a boyfriend, Pieter, the butcher’s son who warns her:
Pieter: Don't get caught up in his world.
Griet: I may only be a maid, but I would NEVER give in to Master Van Ruijven!
Pieter: I wasn't talking about Van Ruijven...
She’s attracted by her master, of course, but even more by the magic he can do with colours and light. Pieter fears he can lose Griet for that.

Griet and Vermeer never go beyond the limits of an emotional relationship. No sexual involvement. Though the scene of master Vermeer piercing her left ear is highly symbolical and extremely sensual. Just as the attraction and the tension between them is palpable while they mix the coloured paints together. Their relationship becomes closer while Vermeer paints Griet for Van Ruijven . Catharina's growing jealousy of Griet becomes more and more apparent, and she finally discovers the theft of her earrings, accusing her own mother of complicity (she had given Griet her dauther's earrings) and ordering Vermeer to show her the painting he and Griet have been working on. It is obscene to her and  Griet must leave the house.

Cast: Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer; Scarlett Johansson as Griet; Tom Wilkinson as Piet Van Ruijven; Judy Parfitt as Maria Thins ;Cillian Murphy as Pieter; Essie Davis as Catharina Vermeer; Anna Popplewell as Maertge

French cinematographer Eduardo Serra and his Dutch collaborators, the production designer Ben van Os and the costume designer Dien van Straalen, have given the movie extraordinary beauty. The landscapes are enchanting. The stern, black-dressed mother-in-law seems just come out of a Rembrandt. The interiors and exteriors of Delft resemble paintings by Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch and their contemporaries brought to life. That beauty will stay always with me. More than the story itself.

Some differences between  Chevalier's novel and the film
• Most of the events in the novel's epilogue, such as Griet's marriage to Pieter and their two children, Jan and Frans, are not shown in the film.
• In the novel, there is a subplot involving Griet's younger sister, who eventually dies from the plague.
• In the novel, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek warns Griet not to get too close to Vermeer, but he is absent from the film and his lines are given to Pieter.
• In the novel, Griet and Tanneke have a difficult relationship, but in the movie, they seem to get along. This is shown by Tanneke's teasing Griet about Pieter and her willingness to chat and gossip.
• In the novel, Griet pierces her left and right earlobe herself. In the film, Vermeer pierces the left one for her, while she does not have to pierce her right lobe

A Single Man premiered on September 11, 2009 at the 66th Venice International Film Festival where Colin Firth was awarded the Coppa Volpi as Best Actor. He also won at British BAFTA as Best Actor for this movie. He well deserved all the positive responses to his role as George Falconer,  because the entire film is emotionally on his shoulders and he gave us a gripping and stunning performance.


The film is based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood and was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, who, as a first-time director, had to finance it himself. Colin Firth stars as the protagonist George Falconer, a gay British university professor living in Southern California in 1962, a month after the Cuban missile crisis. The film places emphasis on the culture of the 1960s but most of the lines and the scenes go beyond space and time. They are universal and eternal. I so often wanted to stop the movie and write down what I had just heard. But I didn’t do it. The narration, slow, deep, inolving couldn’t be stopped. I didn’t want to stop it. I ‘ll rewatch it. That’s for sure.


Throughout the single day depicted in the film, and narrated from his point of view, George Falconer dwells on his past, shown in flashbacks, and his seemingly empty future, as he prepares for his planned suicide that evening. He feels lonely and depressed: he can’t forget his lover, who died in a care accident 8 months before. He buys bullets for his revolver, empties his safety deposit box in the bank, prepares letters for some friends, and one with some money for his cleaning woman, and arranges his life insurance policy, other important things such as keys, and the clothes he wants to be dressed in by the undertaker neatly in sight. Everyday things and encounters become special for him, realizing that for each it is the last time, and he is extra nice to people, as he is secretly saying goodbye.

I don’t want to give away much more. I don’t want to spoil your personal watching of this movie. But of course I can’t avoid saying that George is gay and the lover whose loss he can’t overcome was Jim, an architect, who had lived with him for 16 years. However this film is nothing about sexuality and much, much more about love, faithfulness, friendship, loneliness, prejudices, hypocrisy, war and fear. The role of a lifetime for Colin Firth after so many brilliant performances .

Cast : Colin Firth as George Carlyle Falconer; Julianne Moore as Charlotte (Charley); Nicholas Hoult as Kenny Potter ; Matthew Goode as Jim; Jon Kortajarena as Carlos; Paulette Lamori as Alva; Ryan Simpkins as Jennifer Strunk; Ginnifer Goodwin as Mrs. Strunk; Teddy Sears as Mr. Strunk
I want to close this post with an answer Colin Firth gave in a long and interesting interview about this film about his character’s homosexuality:
Reporter: But being a closeted gay man in 1962 makes George more secretive, right?
Colin : Yeah, but people are secretive about their sexuality, generally, in one way or another anyway, unless they’re Italian. Sorry, that’s a dig at my [Italian] wife. Not everybody flaunts their sexuality, but I take your point. I think certainly in 1962, he’s a college professor, and [his homosexuality] might have made people more suspicious of him. In the ‘70s, when I was a teenage schoolboy, the idea that anybody might be gay also implied that they might be some sort of predator. Those are the kind of prejudices. I think we live with those less now in our society.

I really hope we do, Colin. But I’m not that sure, unfortunately. However, thanks for this beautiful, unforgettable movie and for an awesome performance. 

 Watch the trailer of the movie - Isn't the soundtrack great, too?





11 comments:

Karen said...

"He's simply too good to be ignored", as you can read in the trailer's credits, and I kept thinking so since the first time I've set eyes on Colin Firth. I was watching 'Another Country', his stunning first appearance on the big screen, back in 1984 (!), so many years before the infamous pond scene :-/
As you know, I simply love P&P95, but can't believe he's remembered only for that silly scene... GRRR!
Thank you MG for these lovely reviews, I'm happy you've appreciated both films, although I was quite sure you would ;) As for the soundtracks, I'm very fond of GWAPE's as well, particularly in the 'clouds scene'!
Ciao,
KB

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Karen
Hi! GWAPE's soundtrack didn't catch my attention as much as ASM's. This means I have to re-watch "the clouds scene" , at least! ;-)
Buona giornata!
MG

Avalon said...

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a beautiful movie. I like Colin too. I think he is a brilliant actor.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Avalon
Yes, he's a very good actor and played in very good film. I'm just trying to complete my "education" following Karen's suggestions. She's an expert. Do you want to know anything about Colin? Ask her! So for her sake or better to avoid her teasing me for not seeing this or that film, I'm willingly catching up with CF's long and fruitful career. But you know, I've only got ONE weakness. Any idea? ;-) Thanks Avalon!

Lua said...

The Girl with a Pearl Earning was fantastic (I’m a huge Tracy Chevalier fan! But I think I fell in love with him on Pride & Prejudice :) I haven’t seen the 'A Single Man' but the trailer looks great (and yes- the soundtrack is amazing!), can’t wait to see it!

lunarossa said...

Hi MG, I haven't seen A Single Man yet so I cannot comment on it, but I've read very good reviews about it. I really liked Girl with a Pearl Earring (although I liked the book more!) and I think Colin interpreted Master Vermeer beautifully. Tracy Chevalier wasn't very keen on Colin at the beginning, she actually would have liked Ralph Fiennes to play him instead, maybe because he looked a little bit more Dutch. She liked him after seeing the finished film, although she didn't see a great chemistry between Vermeer and Grit. I agree that Colin is a great actor and should be remembered for more than just Mr Darcy. He was great even in a children's film like Nanny McFee! Ciao bella. A.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Lua & lunarossa
You must see A Single Man. It's a beautiful film.
Incredibly good. Thanks for passing by and commenting!
MG

Traxy said...

I still need to watch Girl with a Pearl Earring. Have had it for some time now but not got around to it. Although, I now have a few Richard Armitage DVDs to go through first... *grins*

Nat at RA FanBlog said...

I've loved Colin Firth and his work since first seeing him as Darcy in P&P when I was a kid.

Judy said...

Glad to hear you liked both of these films, MG -'Girl with a Pearl Earring' is one of my all-time favourites, and I also admired 'A Single Man' when I saw it recently. I do think there is a lot less prejudice now than there was at that time, although I agree with you that sadly it has not gone away altogether. Anyway, Colin Firth is one of my favourite actors, and has been ever since he was in the film of 'Another Country' back in the 1980s!

Arti said...

I'm late coming to your blog, but so glad I finally found you (thru Twitter. You may not be aware, I've recently followed you ;) ) I've been catching up on your posts, and found we have many common faves... Jane Austen, Colin Firth, reviewing both books and films. (not many do both) Your Colin Firth 'education' is most interesting. Girl with A Pearl Earring and A Single Man are two of the most memorable Firth films for me. May I suggest one must-see but lesser known work of his, as I don't see it on your list: When Did You Last See Your Father (2007). That is one brilliant gem. If you're interested, you're welcome to read my review on it. I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival, too bad Colin wasn't there, but the director and Jim Broadbent was there in person after the screening.

Again, it's my pleasure finding your blog and I'll definitely make it a regular destination!