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film review

Detail of Johannes Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.

Everyone at one time has stood before a painting in an art museum and thought, Oooo-wee, I wish I coulda done that. Frequently the work prompting the awe is by an Old Master, maybe a Rembrandt self-portrait, a winter scene by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Rubens nude. Most of us, of course, never act on the wish, claiming either various lacks (of talent, time, ambition) or simple humility in the presence of unattainable genius.

Not so with Tim Jenison. In the early years of this century the Texas-based inventor/self-made millionaire hit upon the notion of painting a Vermeer. What seemed to make this the height of folly was that Jenison, born in 1955, had no training or experience as a painter. Moreover, in Johannes Vermeer, he was embracing an artist whose canvases, for all their immense charm and quotidian content, are among the most complex, difficult and well … mysterious in the annals of great Western art. Jenison didn't care. His wealth gave him the time to entertain his ambition and, after an in-depth study of Vermeer spanning more than five years, he fixed that ambition on attempting to recreate one of Vermeer's most beloved and daunting works. This would be The Music Lesson, painted in 1663 in the Dutch city of Delft, 74 centimetres by 64, a picture of a girl, back to the viewer, playing a virginal keyboard, a male tutor in profile to her right, a richly detailed carpet in the foreground, north light pouring into the room from leaded-glass windows on the left.

It's Jenison's recreation that's at the heart of Tim's Vermeer, at 80 minutes an efficient documentary of a magnificent obsession that, in real time, from commitment to conclusion, took Jenison almost 2,000 days. Yes, there are stretches in this amiable chronicle, particularly those of Jenison's painstaking slog to the finish line, that really do have all the drama of watching paint dry. But mostly it is fascinating and compelling. Compelling because Tim's Vermeer is also an argument; it's about a man with a mission, a theory to test, an axe – or should that be mirrors and lenses? – to grind.

As many of you will know, there's an increasingly persuasive body of informed conjecture that posits that Vermeer's luminous, spookily realistic masterpieces weren't the result of "unfathomable genius," that they had to have been painted with the mediation of mirrors and lenses. Jenison holds to this view, articulated most famously and forcefully this century by British painter David Hockney and the architect Philip Steadman in books such as Vermeer's Camera and Secret Knowledge. Tim's Vermeer is Jenison's near-maniacal demonstration of the conjecture's credibility. Maniacal because Jenison not only undertook to reproduce, more or less exactly, Vermeer's Vermeer but to reproduce the processes he's convinced Vermeer used.

So it comes to pass that we see him build, in a north-facing San Antonio warehouse, an exact to-scale replica of Vermeer's room. We see him prepare, by hand, the sort of paints Vermeer would have made himself in the mid-17th century. We see him (and others) construct and install the same furnishings and clothing Vermeer positioned in his room. And, most crucially, we see him grind, form, polish, tinker with, then use optical aids that turn him, a rank amateur, into the photo-realist or "painting machine" he thinks Vermeer became 150 years before the invention of photography. Along the way Hockney and Steadman put in appearances to cheer the experiment along.

Tim's Vermeer, in other words, is about magic or, more precisely, the rational explanation of the seemingly ineffable enchantments we call magic. Fittingly, it's a film by magicians – Penn Jillette, who provides narration and co-production, and sidekick Teller who's the director. Both are pals of Jenison but what matter's most to the film is the duo's ethos – inquisitive, skeptical, deconstructionist yet respectful. Johannes Vermeer is still a genius at documentary's end but a fathomable genius, as much scientist as artist, a driven, resourceful creator whose conceptual and compositional brilliance remains undiminished by whatever techniques Jenison, Hockney and crew ascribe to him. If anything, Tim's Vermeer refreshes our view of Vermeer, makes him more of a modern artist, less a distant mirror.

Tim's Vermeer opens in Toronto and Vancouver Feb. 21 and in Montreal Feb. 28.