All this havoc helped him get a handle on 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, who had 11 children running around his cramped home in Delft and a wife who was a bit of a shrew. Vermeer nevertheless created some of the most remarkable paintings ever committed to canvas. His simple yet mystical images remain in the mind's eye long after viewing.
Cast as Vermeer in the holiday movie "Girl With a Pearl Earring,'' Firth immediately knew he could never capture the great man's genius.
"I couldn't touch that. You can't play genius,'' he said over coffee during the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Girl'' premiered.
Firth, 43, has built a career on costume dramas—most memorably as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 miniseries "Pride and Prejudice,'' a role that made him the hunk du jour of the "Masterpiece Theater" crowd. As is often said of him, Firth seems to belong in britches. He looked out of sync in jeans and casual sweater, like a time traveler trying to blend in.
On the other hand, he's completely convincing in the robes of a marginally prosperous mid-1600s painter. Firth found the "practical details'' of Vermeer's life a "useful accessible element'' in capturing him.
"This was a man who painted seemingly serene pictures repeatedly, capturing the calm of the moment in a house that is incredibly chaotic,'' said Firth, who studied Vermeer's work in museums. "Everybody knows what it's like in a noisy house. Everybody knows what it is to need to work, to close yourself off in a room and have the sounds going on. Everybody knows what it is like to have a bit of a secret life, a secret passion or a dream. Looking from my own vantage point, I think one of the most interesting things is that kind of creative intensity within a very earthbound domestic environment.''
Firth wouldn't reveal much about his own secret life, except to say that "you can share these things with your partner.'' He's become guarded since his first brush with fame, when paparazzi followed him home after he had purchased a vacuum cleaner. A headline in the tabs screamed, "Mr. Darcy does the household chores.''
The notoriety intensified after Helen Fielding, in the midst of writing "Bridget Jones's Diary,'' named the romantic hero Mr. Darcy in the actor's honor. Firth was catapulted to a gentler English version of superstardom when he was cast as Darcy in the screen adaptation. He's reprising the role in a sequel.
Firth is opinionated on the subject of Vermeer's secret life, which, the movie suggests, may have entailed a romantic liaison with his young housemaid, possibly the model for his sexually charged painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring.'' In her novel of the same name, Tracy Chevalier took fictional license in telling the story of Griet, a 16-year-old employed by the Vermeers to tend to the children and perform menial tasks for Mrs. Vermeer. Scarlett Johansson, fresh from enticing Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation,'' again plays muse to an older man in "Girl.''
As portrayed in the movie, Vermeer's relationship with Griet is loaded with sexual tension, but Firth is convinced it was never consummated. "I don't think he does womanize at all. I think he is utterly faithful to his wife. His mother-in-law covers up (the times she sees Griet and Vermeer together) because his wife is extremely jealous, and the mother-in-law knows there will be nothing but trouble.''
Still, the scene where Griet poses in his studio is awfully hot, especially when Vermeer smears red paint over her lips. According to the movie, this accounts for the girl's moist red-parted mouth, which leaps out from the canvas far more than her subtle earring.
"The direction in that scene was eloquent,'' Firth recalled. "You see a brush going across her lips, then you see my thumb going across. There was no more contact (between them) than that.''
Firth came away impressed with Johannson, no more than a teenager herself.
"She's quite committed to what she does. I think she's exceptional.'' Her resemblance to the model in the painting is remarkable. "Scarlett has a Scandinavian background, so she is not a million miles away. She is very fair skinned, and she bleached out her eyebrows. She wore no makeup, just white (coloring). She showed a lack of vanity.''
Because so much of the movie deals with her character, Firth didn't feel a need to do extensive research on methods of painting.
"If the movie was all about Vermeer, we would have seen more of that. In the end, I wanted to look like I could hold a brush and put it on canvas. I've had a go at painting. It's not a regular hobby, but I know how to do it. The way Vermeer moved things around his desk was more interesting for me than watching his hand on the canvas.''
Although it's not obvious to the audience, it meant a lot to Firth that the tools in the studio were reproductions of what Vermeer would have used. The brushes were crudely made of horsehair and crooked wood, the paint composed of shellac and various odorous components.
"One of the things the film actually can't really communicate, which is really striking, are the smells. Some of them would have smelled horrible. Vermeer would have had to make his own paint in the laboratory and get those colors right.''
On most movie sets, Firth has felt "an element of stress because you are carrying a lot of responsibility.'' It was acute on "Girl With a Pearl Earring, '' the first movie in which he has the undisputed male lead.
By contrast, "Love Actually'' was a lark. A huge ensemble cast meant "I wasn't carrying anything. I was just having a holiday on a film.''
By odd coincidence, his character in that movie also has a relationship with a maid. Firth said that actually happened to Richard Curtis, "Love's'' writer and director.
"He was in France writing, and he fell in love with a Portuguese cleaning lady.'' Unlike the movie, however, their romance did not have a happy ending. "Richard never even spoke to her.''
Firth laughed when told that there's an impression in the United States that he and the other prominent British actors in the movie are all pals. He said he doesn't hang out with Hugh Grant—his co-star in the "Bridget Jones'' movies as well as "Love Actually''—or Alan Rickman or Emma Thompson or any of the others.
"We're not one big happy
all,'' he says. "But 'Love Actually' was a happy shoot.''
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