The Miniaturist showed on PBS Masterpiece last month. You may be able to find it On Demand. The three-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s novel and book-group favorite was beautiful, borrowing unabashedly from the visual style of the Dutch Old Masters; rich buttery light in contrast to velvety, sinister shadows. This is completely appropriate, because the story of The Miniaturist takes place in late seventeen-century Amsterdam. It’s filled with strangeness, danger and mystery; full of doubles, facades, veneers, and hidden interiors.
Petronella Oortman (Anna Taylor-Joy) comes alone to the house of Johannes Brandt in Amsterdam. She is his wife; they were married in a brief ceremony in her home town, to the relief of her mother because the marriage settlement covered the horrendous debt Petronella’s father left them with when he died. Johannes is a highly successful merchant and leader of merchant society. The marriage is not consummated on the wedding night, and when Petronella comes to the house, alone except for her pet parrot, he is not at home. Petronella is confronted with Johannes’s bitter, acerbic sister Marin (Romola Garai), who has run the household until now. Marin dresses in severe black and forbids sugar in the house because “sugar rots the soul.” (Sugar plays a multi-layered role in this story.) She is cruel to Petronella from the first, mocking the pet bird, forbidding Petronella to have it in her room, insulting Petronella and refusing to allow marzipan in the house when Petronella requests it, even though by custom Petronella is now the woman who should run this household.
The adaptation sticks closely to the book, with some of the usual changes one sees when a property jumps from one medium to another. Timeframes are compressed a bit. Some changes seem mysterious (like, one dog and not two?) and may have to do with production costs. The basics of the story, a young woman coming of age and into her power; the study of the hypocrisy that passes for piety, the theme of masks, surfaces, and interiors are faithfully rendered.
When Johannes (Alex Hassell) does appear, he is off-handed, indifferent to Nella, and soon gone again, but not before having a cabinet delivered as her wedding present. The cabinet has compartments designed to look like rooms of a house. It’s an early dollhouse. When Nella asks what she is to do with this, Johannes tells her to furnish it. Against Marin’s unpleasantness and Johannes’s indifference, it is easy for Nella to read this statement as, “This is the only household you’ll ever manage.” This, however, is what introduces her to the miniaturist.
Nella reaches out to a miniaturist at “The Sign of the Sun,” requesting three objects. They arrive shortly, and after that more miniatures appear; ones she didn’t request, ones that perfectly replicate things and people inside the household of which she is how a part. Soon, the figures take on almost sinister quality, along with the cryptic notes that appear with them, such as “Woman is the architect of her own destiny.” Nella writes to the miniaturist insisting he stop, but the objects keep appearing. Meanwhile, she has encounters with a mysterious woman, near the miniaturist’s shop, but she never connects with the woman.
Johannes and Marin bicker constantly over a store of sugar Johannes has in his warehouse. It’s the property of Franz and Agnes Meermans. Johannes is refusing to sell it. To the Meermans, he makes excuses; to Nella he says that the money he would make for them would give them too much power and they would misuse it. Agnes is clearly a rival of Marin and soon the maid Cornelia (Hayley Squires) explains that Franz and Marin were in love but Johannes refused to accept Franz’s offer for her hand. Since Johannes and Nella have grown closer and she sees the kindness in him, this past cruelty is baffling.
The book had a lot of interior monologues; in the adaptation, many are given voice. The identity and the motivation of the miniaturist becomes more perplexing, but Nella is soon facing more immediate dilemmas, like unmarried Marin’s advanced pregnancy or the fact that Johannes loves men (a fact that would earn him the death penalty). Johannes’s story is compelling, but throughout the three-part series, the intensity of the relationships of the three women trapped in the Brandt home, Nella, Cornelia and Marin, was riveting. These three actresses played off each other perfectly. All the characters are interesting, but Marin is the most complex, the least likeable, but the easiest understood in some ways, at the end.
Everything about the show is beautiful, and the costumes add an important social commentary. Marin always wears stern, “pious” black and white, but Cornelia points out that her plain, modest garments are lined with sumptuous fur. My favorite use of clothing to show the hypocrisy of this class at this time is a scene in church. Agnes Meerman wears black and white. The white includes a lace collar with points that reach nearly to her waist. The black includes a hat with dyed black egret feathers that stand about a foot and a half tall. In contrast, Johannes dresses finely and parades Nella around in beautiful dresses the color of jewels. When his secret is uncovered, society’s desire to punish him is less because of his “unnatural sin” and more because he openly expressed contempt for their hypocrisy.
Like the book, the story is sad, and prominent characters die (as do beloved pets). At the end, Nella must decide what her place is in Amsterdam. Unlike the book, the television show lets us hear the miniaturist speak in her own voice about her strange gift. Nella discovers that many society women in Amsterdam get the cryptic notes and the strange objects from the miniaturist, and it is clear she has some kind of psychic or supernatural ability that would probably get her executed if it were discovered. Considering the name of the story, this character plays a slight role in this dark and ultimately hopeful story.
Like most Masterpiece projects, The Miniaturist was very well done. It is sad and dark, but there is hope at the end.