If ever a film was Oscar bait for cinematography and production design, Girl With a Pearl Earring is it. First-time director Peter Webber and his team have adroitly channeled the look of Vermeer into a celluloid facsimile. In this adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's eponymous novel, which invents a backstory to Vermeer's immortal painting, the filmmakers have uncannily reproduced the painter's color tonalities--the Delft blues and yellows, the dull gleam of pewter cutlery, pale shimmering robes edged in white and black ermine. They've nailed as well the quality and light source we associate with Vermeer: that gauzy bath flooding in from a window to the subject's left. The sepia-colored exteriors capture the flavor of 17th-century Delft, and there's one knockout scene of lovers strolling along a poplar-lined canal that deserves an award all its own. It's as if Webber and friends had touched a magic wand to the Dutch master's oeuvre and wakened it to life.

That said, the story content could hardly be more puerile. In fact, Pearl Earring is a chick flick dressed up in Old Master clothes, a 'You go, girl' essay in female empowerment, threaded through with that old chestnut, 'My wife doesn't understand me.'

Griet (Scarlett Johansson) is forced by her father's accident to work as a servant in the household of Johannes Vermeer (a glowering Colin Firth in a major wig). Ruling the roost is Vermeer's harridan mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt), who focuses on the bottom line and lobbies patrons such as van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) for commissions. Meanwhile, the painter manages to keep his wife (Essie Davis) perpetually pregnant. When Vermeer forms an attachment to Griet, who develops an interest in art and assists him in his studio, his wife becomes the queen of mean. Meanwhile, Griet must weigh a marriage proposal from the local butcher boy, played by the divine-looking Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later, got up in gear to trigger a new fashion craze. Spoiler ahead: Griet and Vermeer, separated by class and age, never consummate (which, to judge by recent films such as Lost in Translation, has become the theme of the season).

The psychology feels jarringly anachronistic. The 17th-century dude Vermeer gravitates toward Griet not only for her bruised-fruit lips, but because she understands his art, unlike his hysterical wife ruled by hormones. When the wife pitches tantrums and Vermeer escapes to his studio (and Griet), it seems a retread of unappreciated husband taking up with the secretary. Griet is conceived as a girl waking to art and life's finer things, but assigned by class strictures to slicing veggies and emptying slops. That's uplifting, but the film fails to render Griet's growing artistic sensibility dramatically credible. The villains are flat-out melodrama: the patron a grabby lech, the wife a spite machine. Meanwhile, Firth's Vermeer has little to do besides glower and sweat under his copious curls, curb his libido, and filch his wife's pearl earring.

It's to Johansson's credit that she alone pulls something plausible out of her character. Her haunting beauty is a throwback to an earlier century, her screen presence luminous, her stillness and intelligence mesmerizing. And let's hear it for the make-up artists and DP Eduardo Serra, who have fashioned a face that morphs so thrillingly at the end into Vermeer's actual painting.

--Erica Abeel