During such revolutionary times and ideas which are growing day by day, it is important that from time to time we dig into our past. Today I would like to present a very small series called The Miniaturist, starring some remarkable actors of recent years, which I have loved from the first second. This series comes with its entanglements and mysteries, and that’s why I want to speak carefully about its context and what it all represents.
The abuse of power, the arbitrariness of religion, social conventions, the oppression of women, the persecution of unjustly called unnatural sex, and racism are recurring themes in real life and therefore in fiction. Regardless of the era, no doubt. In fact, today, we still live these scourges in spite of evolution; it is as if we do not learn from our mistakes and we are determined to go through a perverse loop, where memory is banished, only to resort to it when it is too late. “Only he who does not know history are condemned to repeat it”, Herodotus of Halicarnassus said two thousand five hundred years ago. And so it goes.
The Miniaturist is a clear example of how little the continent matters (although in this case, it is sublime) and how much the content matters when these universal themes are addressed. Based on Jessie Burton‘s book, The Miniaturist takes us to an unusual time in fiction and to a city as beautiful as it is unsettling, where the eyes of an eighteen-year-old woman show us a familiar but novel universe through a mysterious game.
The Beginning within the Past
Explaining What it’s All About
The British public broadcaster’s ability to bring historic fiction novels to the small screen is well known within the business. And as expected, the adaptation of The Miniaturist does not disappoint the fans of Burton’s work, nor those who enjoy a good series of epochs. But its limited length (three episodes), can leave many with little more than honey on their lips.
Here’s a little summary to get your memory (or interest) going:
Nella’s arrival at the Strand house provokes the misgivings of Marin, Johannes’ pious sister. The merchant soon appears, but he is not particularly excited about the arrival of his new wife. To compensate for his lack of affection, Mr. Strand gives Nella a house of miniatures. A very coveted gift at the time but one that causes bewilderment in the young woman, who will turn to a local miniaturist to give realism to the small closet.
In her first order, Nella discovers some miniatures that did not appear in the list she sent to the artisan, among which she finds a small cradle. A mystery that leads the young woman to think that someone is following in her footsteps and knows what the future holds as a member of the Strand family. But Nella’s curious correspondence, and the succession of new inhabitants of the house of miniatures, are no more than an excuse to transport the viewer to a vibrant era in which religion and power marked one of the most powerful societies on the European continent.
The Deeper Look
Painting the Picture
Let’s rewind the previous paragraph and let’s situate ourselves, again.
Amsterdam, end of the 17th century. Petronella – Nella – Oortman is a young eighteen-year-old girl educated to be a lady. Without a father and with her family burdened by debt, her only way out is to marry a wealthy man, opening her the expectations to a life filled with possibilities. The ideal candidate is Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassel), a rich merchant from the city. After an impromptu romance of three (with the mother acting as a chaperone), an agreement is quickly reached: marriage and transfer to Brandt’s house, even though Brandt has to leave for Venice on business and will not be there when Nella arrives at what will be her home.
The absence of her new husband causes Nella to meet Johannes’ sister, Marin (Romola Garai), the maid, Cornelia (Hayley Squires), and the servant, Otto (Paapa Essiedu). Instantly, Nella discovers that the power in the house is exercised by Marin, supported unreservedly by both servants, at the cost of austerity, moral rectitude, and inflexible norms. The brand new home on the banks of the canal is different from what Nella had believed; her joy for the brand new bond contrasts with the rigidity of the Brandt house. Nella believes that everything will change once her husband returns from Venice.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. The arrival of Johannes Brandt is an unexpected turning point for his wife. With exquisite treatment, the rich merchant dispenses favors and gifts to his wife but deprives her of any marital relationship; far from getting closer, she moves away, making excuses and pretexts. To try to alleviate Nella’s displeasure, he gives her a house of miniatures, a very prestigious and desired object at that time. Nella does not quite understand such a gift, nor her husband’s lack of interest, but she accepts it in order to capture his attention. She decides to go to a miniaturist to bring her gift to life and makes a list.
To her surprise, as soon as she receives the order, she discovers that the miniaturist has made some figures that were not on the list. Yet, above all, it’s the last one of the small packages she receives from that order which leaves her breathless; a cradle. Nella makes another order and, once again, the miniaturist makes figures and items different from those requested. Nella suspects that she is being watched and decides to pull the lonely thread from the ball. In other words, she begins her search for answers.
At the same time, Johannes gets involved in a serious business problem by acting as an intermediary in a sugar sale in Italy. The convergence of both plots reveals to Nella that the house where she lives and the family, which is hers, hide secrets that she would never have imagined.
Power and Morality
A Not-So-Outdated Burden of Life
“The Unions have a monopoly of trade and set the prices. One of the silversmiths is one of the richest. For a trader like me, who works outside the guilds, attendance is not simply a sign of respect, but a duty,”
Johannes explains to his wife as they enter the hall hosting the Goldsmiths’ Union party. Curious glances soon settle on them, as they walk through the room full of tables laden with all kinds of food.
Marin, who has refused to accompany them because “it is better to be seen with your wife” asks them not to return home without inviting the Mermaans to dinner. A marriage with which the Strands have a pending business, the sale of a commodity on which their rise in the social ladder depends, and, according to Johannes’ sister, the stability of the family.
The quarrels of the past between the two surnames and the moral rectitude that marked the Dutch society of the moment will place all of them in court, with sodomy as the main charge of the accusation. A cold place where those who pass sentence have no shame in manipulating the truth at will. And those who are incapable of forgetting, are quick to trample on their own honor with revenge as an excuse.
A Great Female Character
After two and a half hours of footage marked by the mystery of the miniaturist and the suspense of the business with the Mermaans, the spectators find the interesting protagonist of this story in a scenario as unexpected as it is exciting. But that is not the story Jessie Burton wanted to tell, and the viewer must say goodbye to his new heroine immediately. The bitter farewell that clouds the production, while it corroborates the dimension of the character played by Anya Taylor-Joy, whose determination and commitment easily manages to capture the interest of the audience.
The Miniaturist is an outstanding period production that cleverly uses the freshness of Burton’s writing to make the female symbol resonate within that society. A short and interesting mini-series that, fortunately for the more selective viewers, fits perfectly into that very British genre of “an afternoon enjoying a BBC adaptation” with the right amount of social commentary.
The Miniaturist’s Flair
What Separates it from the Rest
Through the three chapters of approximately one hour each, this BBC miniseries transports us to one of the most important social and economic epicenters of Europe in the 17th century; a city governed by the guilds of merchants, the syndics, and the recalcitrant and reactionary Calvinist church. Morality and power are the indissoluble axes of a society where appearances are everything.
The house of miniatures is one of that little rara avis in the world of series. Only three chapters, not even three hours of footage, set in a difficult time; a gorgeous production design, a meticulous art department to the point of exhaustion, and shooting on real exteriors in the old town of Amsterdam. A perfect dress for a timeless story, where the narrator is a woman and the leading role, and the weight of courage, is borne by women.
The feminine trio that sustains the series is written in capital letters. Anya Taylor-Joy (Nella Oortamn) fascinated me in the powerful and captivating The Witch (2015) as well as the current sensation the Queen’s Gambit (2020). And here, in yet another very different register, she has done it again. I knew Romola Garai (Marin Brandt) from The Last Days on Mars (2013) and from Atonement (2007), but, frankly, on this occasion, she has surpassed herself. As for Hayley Squires (Cornelia), I recognize that she has been the most remarkable discovery in the series. Alex Hassel plays Johannes Brandt and, for my taste, he plays his role well, without excesses or bragging.
All in all, The Miniaturist is an extraordinary mini-series made to the millimeter and completed with an exceptional cast in which Romola Garai’s performance as Johannes’ relentless sister and the leadership of young Anya Taylor-Joy, who is becoming one of the most promising actresses in the industry. Without a doubt, The Miniaturist is on its way to becoming a small cult play within contemporary period dramas; if it hasn’t already.
If you can put “buts” to The Miniaturist is that perhaps the viewer can come to feel that the end is somewhat hasty, and also the feeling that the story does not fully elucidate why the miniaturist knew all the secrets of the family. The solution: everything is in the images.
However, The Miniaturist is not exempt from the problems that come with adapting novels (this two-part mini-series is an adaptation of Jessie Burton’s novel of the same name). There simply isn’t enough time to put everything on the screen.
Also, in this case, I think there are perhaps elements that look better in a novel. The story is based on the idea that the miniaturist has seen things that were there all along, while no one else was paying attention. On the pages, this could make much more sense, with the novelist being able to hint at things, moments, and leaving clues that lead to a satisfactory outcome. On the screen, everything feels rushed.
Answer: No, The Miniaturist is the 2014 debut novel of English actress and author Jessie Burton. An international bestseller, it was the focus of a publishers´ bidding war at the 2013 London Book Fair. Set in Amsterdam in 1686-87, the novel was inspired by Petrinella Oortman´s doll´s house on display at the Rijksmuseum.
Answer: A person who makes collects or specializes in miniature objects: a miniaturist with a collection of dollhouses.
Answer: Well, in order to create the dollhouse, the production – which, unlike our titular miniaturist, was not in possession of supernatural or otherwise mysterious miniature-making skills – turned to Mulvany & Rogers, designers of one-twefth scale bespoke miniatures and dollhouses.
Answer: With the possibility of a second season curtailed down to nearly none, naturally, there will be no release dates for it unless author Jessie Burton decides to pen a sequel to it. Now if that happens, and even though it translates into a very long wait, we might get The Miniaturist season 2 by 2022.