Filmink, April 2004, by Gaynor Flynn

Art & Soul

British screen legend and Pride & Prejudice heartthrob Colin Firth finds himself in period trappings once again in Girl With A Pearl Earring. Filmink’s Gaynor Flynn spoke with the actor at The Toronto Film Festival.

Colin Firth is considered the archetypal romantic hero. Although he's been performing on screen for the last 20 years, it was his 1995 performance as the arrogant and misunderstood Mr. Darcy in the BBC's adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice that cemented that reputation. And for those of you who may have missed the hoo ha, it is a formidable reputation. One scene in particular that has Mr. Darcy emerging from a lake, in his undergarments, dripping wet, and suffering all the tortures of unrequited love, was voted the second greatest television moment of the 20th century, just behind the moon landing and slightly ahead of Nelson Mandela's release from prison…

Firth at first found the “Darcy phenomenon” intriguing, then slightly bizarre, and while he tried to leave Mr. Darcy far behind, the rest of the world would not let go. Of course, typecasting is something most of the screen greats all have to endure at some time in their career, so when Firth was offered a role in Bridget Jones’s Diary as Mr. Darcy (a character inspired by “that” Mr. Darcy) he accepted it, and decided that if you can't beat them, join them. He’d reached a place where he could finally see the amusing side of it all. Although he does throw in that he finds it “utterly astonishing that people still mention it after all these years.”

But overall, Firth’s trying to be a little more philosophical about the role that changed his life. “It completely changed everything,” he smiles. “My life, my career…it couldn't have been more different. And I'm obviously grateful for the opportunities I now enjoy today that are a direct result of that role.”

This perhaps explains why Firth has taken on Girl With A Pearl Earring, yet another period film: he's obviously a sentimental kind of guy. “I rather like britches,” he jokes. “No, I enjoy period films, and I enjoy the whole process of immersing myself in another era. I felt this film took itself seriously, which is not a popular position in many films today.”

Here Firth takes on the role of the enigmatic 17th century Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer. Helmed by debut director Peter Webber and based on Tracy Chevalier's novel, the film is a purely speculative take on the genesis of one of Vermeer's most famous and most mysterious paintings, and posits the possibility of an intense relationship between the painter and the young maid (Scarlett Johansson) who would become his model for the Girl With A Pearl Earring painting. The whole speculative nature of the film was something that appealed to the inquisitive Firth.

“There's very little known about the fellow really,” says Firth. “I had to put my own pieces together and I formed various theories, but there was absolutely nothing you can really settle on. And it actually drove me bananas at one point trying to come to a conclusion and trying to pin down some fixed notion to help me understand specifically what kind of man he was.”

This is just the kind of intellectual intrigue that Firth so enjoys. “I do enjoy the research,” he says. “And I do question whether that's any use or whether it’s just for my satisfaction but it’s one of the perks of the job for me. You can just really go off and get into it and there's a lot of freedom in that. I didn't go to university, but I do this. I don't know what it would have been like playing an artist I didn't like, but I do like Vermeer. I already did and I just really got into the whole mystery of the guy.”

Obviously there are particular challenges associated with bringing a 17th century painter to life on the big screen, and making it cinematic. Particularly when you have minimal dialogue, and hardly any scene changes, given that out of the thirty-five Vermeer paintings known about today, twenty were painted in the same corner of the same room.

“Not a lot happens on the surface,” agrees Firth. “The action is minimal and so is the dialogue. But like many actors, I love doing less dialogue. Because if it’s badly written or cumbersome, it’s utterly debilitating. Obviously brilliant dialogue is a gift. But in this case it was actually very liberating to have less to work with. I've never worked on a film so affected by tone, where any slight change of emphasis completely changed the outcome of a scene. And Peter was very open to exploring a variety of nuances. As an actor that's what you’re always looking for.”

And while it was a tough ask for a first time director
given the costumes, the art, the historical
Firth had no qualms about Webber's ability to pull it off.

“In some ways,” he says, “it's misleading to call Peter a first time director because you know this man is so film literate. He's made drama, he's been behind a camera, he's shot scenes, he's cut them together
he knows more about film than most people. I've worked with experienced directors who didn't have half his savvy.”

Webber for his part wasn't so worried about being a first timer, as making sure he avoided the “beauty trap”. “The challenge was to find a way to really bring the characters in the film to life and make the emotions as real as possible, and not just have people walk out of the film and go ‘god, that was beautiful’. We wanted them to have a proper emotional experience. That's why it was so important to have people like Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson in there because they pull you in and allow you to identify with that world. I think we've all seen period films where they look fantastic but it really is like watching paint dry. And I was afraid of that. I wanted to plunge us into the art of the time but I was afraid that it would just become a parade of beautiful paintings. Without the emotional depth and resonance of the characters, I could have made a documentary.”

To that end, while Johansson was given “scrubbing lessons” and some dialect coaching to play the maid Griet, Firth was taught a few of the finer things in life to make his transition into Vermeer as believable as possible.

“Colin likes to do a lot of preparation,” says Webber. “We toured around museums. We went to an old fashioned paint grinding mill in Holland. We had a painting expert on the set, and we gave Colin painting lessons on how you hold your palette, and how you hold your brush, just so we could get those details right. We had an etiquette consultant who told us some of the ways people would behave and how they'd hold their bodies during that period. And he really did a lot of reading. I used to play this game with him when we were having lunch
we'd get the Vermeer book and open it up and I'd point to a painting and he would tell you which gallery it came from. He'd go ‘oh, that's in Dressel in East Germany’.”

Firth, ever humble in his accomplishments, does admit that he “dabbles” in a variety of artistic past times. He writes and paints, although he also quickly points out that we should not expect an art exhibition any time soon.

“I actually went for an attempt at painting Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring but it was appalling,” he says. “So I soon realised that it was pointless to try and paint like Vermeer. They brought in an artist to supervise me. She reproduces masterpieces brilliantly and she took me through the process of what it would have taken to create these paintings. We literally went through each step that he presumably would have gone through. And seeing what a mess I was making of it made me realise all the more what extraordinary precision and vision he would have had to have had."

So exactly how would Firth describe his particular artistic style? “It's the crap school of painting,” he says.

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