Nights in with Jo Scarlet

When I think about Scarlett Johansson, which I don’t do all that often, the image that comes to mind is of her as the Black Widow in various Marvel franchise films, so I was somewhat surprised when rummaging through my DVD collection to discover that she plays other roles.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

I read the Chevalier novel a few years back and this feels like a faithful adaptation of the source material, though it was a few years back so my memory could be playing me false. Scarlett plays Griet, who goes to work as a servant in the household of the painter Vermeer (Colin Firth, in excellent form) and ends up as the inspiration for the pseudonymous and iconic painting. And basically that is it, except for some frills courtesy of Vermeer’s patron, who thinks buying the painting entitles him to sleep with the model, and Vermeer’s wife who is a bit put out that he will paint Griet but not her. Oh, and there’s a side issue romance for Griet with the local butcher boy. Naturally this was a ‘painterly’ movie, with a sense that every shot had been carefully composed, maximising the use of light and shadow to convey mood. Scarlett doesn’t do much except look thoughtful and sometimes sullen, at both of which she is rather good, while Firth’s Vermeer is splendid at capturing the concerns of artists, that they are different from those of ordinary people (yes, I know my family is close to starving, but I can’t do any work until that ray of light hits this spot here). Less convincing was the non-romantic attraction between them. Vermeer justifies his preference for Griet as a model to his wife by claiming that she understands his art, but I couldn’t see that this understanding amounted to much more than gazing intently at a painting or two and saying things like, ‘This is a really bright yellow’. More is suggested, with Griet’s father identified as a fellow artist, but I felt it needed to be pinned down, more obviously expressed. It’s an absorbing film and beautiful to look at, but all the same felt a bit superficial overall.

The Island (2005)

This is a Michael Bay film, and so gleefully superficial from the off. While the rest of the world has been devastated by some form or other of apocalypse, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett) and their fellow survivors play out their lives within the cloistered and carefully regulated confines of an enclosed community, and every so often one of them wins the lottery and gets sent away to the utopia of the island. Actually it’s all a crock of shit, and life goes on as normal in the world outside. The inmates are clones of the ultra rich, and instead of going to the fabled island they are carted off to have their organs harvested for the benefit of the facility’s patrons. But Lincoln Six and some of his peer group have developed a greater consciousness, with curiosity as part of their mental skill set. Lincoln and Jordan escape from the facility and go on the run, pursued by heavily armed mercenaries, with plenty of alarums and excursions until they realise that the only way to be safe is by going back and bringing the whole horrible house of cards down around the ears of the people who run it. The idea isn’t new (e.g. the Michael Marshall Smith novel Spares and Silverberg story ‘Caught in the Organ Draft’), and it could have given rise to a thoughtful piece on such themes as the nature of consciousness/identity, the ethics of cloning, and the abuses of the super rich, but it’s Michael Bay in the director’s chair and so what we get is car chases (‘the most exciting chase sequences ever filmed’ according to the blurb from the ever reliable News of the World) and ferocious fire fights. Lincoln has spent his entire life inside the facility, pressing buttons and reading figures, but that doesn’t mean he can’t outrun and outfight a crack team of highly trained and heavily armed mercenaries with helicopters, rocket launchers and armoured cars (to be fair, we do get to see Lincoln indulge in some holographic kick boxing, at which he’s a champ). The final victory of the good guys hinges on the last mercenary standing realising that he’s black and a descendant of slaves, so has more in common with his quarry than the man employing him, though up to that point his only concern has been if the bad guy’s credit rating is good. Sean Bean as the ‘evil’ Dr Merrick is unrecognisable until the end, when his hair gets mussed and he lapses into his native Yorkshire accent under pressure. In the naming of the characters, the idea of the enclosed community, and particularly at the end with scenes of the clones emerging from their habitat, it reminded me very much of Logan’s Run. I guess I enjoyed it in a whizz, bang, flash kind of way good for a Saturday night, but all the same I couldn’t help feeling that it was a catalogue of missed opportunities, with the science fiction element not central but simply a pretext for the usual Hollywood sfx extravaganza.

Lost in Translation (2003)

My favourite of these three films. Bill Murray plays film star Bob Harris, in Tokyo to shoot a whisky commercial. Scarlett is Charlotte, the wife of a photographer in Japan on an assignment. Two strangers in a strange land and fellow insomniacs, they hook up in the hotel bar late at night and an unlikely friendship develops. They explore the country together and separately. Have conversations about life, love and happiness, with the necessary pregnant silences. Bob appears to be distant from his wife and family; Charlotte doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life. Together they can just be themselves. There’s the suggestion that romance is a strong possibility, just needing one of them to make the right (or wrong) move, but also the realisation that it would be a terrible mistake. In the end they part, after a moment of exquisite tenderness, going back to their lives with memories of a precious, brief friendship. Nearly everything about this film is done right. Most of the comedy arises out of an awareness of the Japanese setting as seen through western eyes, the craziness and manic quality of city life contrasted with the peacefulness of country shrines, but it’s a gentle kind of humour, affectionate towards and respectful of its subject, while not neglecting to point up the gaucheness of westerners at the same time. Murray gives an impressive portrayal of somebody who has lost his way, who doesn’t quite measure down to the superficiality expected of the movie star stereotype. Bothered and bewildered by the language and culture gap, he finds common ground with Japanese youths in karaoke and smoking dope. Johansson’s appeal as Charlotte lies in her intelligence and quirky sense of humour. She is both the catalyst for Murray’s loosening up and a character in her own right, one with desires and ambitions centred on herself. At the end I think Bob will make a go of his marriage, but Charlotte will leave her husband. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, even though it didn’t have a car chase and nobody fired a rocket launcher.

Poor Scarlett. She struts out with painter Vermeer and film star Bob, but clone guy Lincoln Six is the one who turns out to be the keeper. Some women have all the luck.

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