It takes a while to warm up to Teller's - yes, of Penn and Teller - directorial debut but thanks to the easy-going, layman approach, and Tim Jenison's affability, Tim's Vermeer blossoms as it continues.
The idea that Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer used optics and possibly a camera obscura to help create those picture perfect paintings has been explored in David Hockney's Secret Knowledge and Philip Steadman’s Vermeer's Camera, but no one had really put the theory to the test. In steps American inventor Tim Jenison, who even though he has never lifted a brush in anger in his life, spends over a year painstakingly recreating the room depicted in Vermeer's The Music Lesson, makes his own paints from scratch, and sets about creating his own work of art...
For the first half it's tough to see why this documentary managed a cinema release. Or why it had to be a documentary at all. The amount of effort put in just to disprove/prove how a painter might have approached his work five hundred years ago just didn't seem worth it – couldn't Tim spend his time inventing something more worthwhile? And it too much time was taken up with debating whether or not Vermeer cheated... if the experiment worked that is. The whole enterprise smacked of those late night educational How Do They Do That? Half hour documentaries. You know the ones.
But when it gets down to the business of the painting itself, Tim's Vermeer becomes almost a different documentary. Suddenly you just want Tim to finish, to see it through. It's a hypnotic second half, with Teller's camera right in there, following Tim as he meticulously recreates Vermeer's tiniest flourishes. It's relaxing, like being sung to sleep. Enchanting and hypnotic. And having such a beautiful painting up close on a huge screen allays the cinematic quality doubts.
The gruelling one hundred and thirty days at canvas it takes for Tim to recreate The Music Lesson might go some way to explaining why such a talented painter like Vermeer painted so little. And it's not cheating. It looked to be like terribly hard work.