Girl with a Pearl Earring

The historical costume drama “Girl with a Pearl Earring” dazzles the eye with its beautifully photographed Dutch scenery and 17th-century apparel, while dulling the senses, perhaps, with its slow-moving story and inscrutable protagonist. It is as gorgeous as a painting, and almost as motionless.

Scarlet Johansson plays Griet, a poor teenage girl sent to work as a maid and cleaning woman in the home of master artist Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). While the missus (Essie Davis), forever pregnant, has a “don’t speak unless spoken to” attitude toward the hired help, as does her imperious, Skeletorian mother (Judy Parfitt), Vermeer himself is much kinder. He comes in contact with Griet when she is assigned to clean his studio, and he sees potential in her, as a student, perhaps as a subject.

It is the latter that causes a rift with Vermeer’s wife, who doesn’t understand art, much less why her husband would want a common servant to pose for a painting. Vermeer’s salacious patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), meanwhile, capricious in his decisions to commission or not commission work from the artist, has his own designs.

Yet for all the plot I have just described, the film has the feel of having very little. Written by Olivia Hetreed (from Tracy Chevalier’s novel) and directed by Peter Webber, the movie proceeds at a snail’s pace, going for lengthy stretches without even indicating what direction it’s traveling.

Johansson is part of the problem. Griet’s position requires she be silent and obsequious most of the time, which translates into long pauses before answering questions or indeed before taking action of any kind. It is maddening, almost, to witness what ought to be simple exchanges between her and her employers being extended into great chasms of hesitation and uncertainty.

It also makes it difficult to relate to Griet as a character, particularly since, even in her off hours — as when she is courted by a butcher’s son named Pieter (Cillian Murphy) — she gives little indication that she is ever any different from the cowed, intimidated creature she is at the Vermeer home. Here’s a movie that is so determined to remain respectable and artsy that it dilutes itself into tepid, tedious mush.

C- (1 hr., 40 min.; PG-13, some sexuality, some intense themes.)