The first time I read Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist I was struck by a prophetic thought: ‘This absolutely needs to be a film or TV show’.
The exquisitely detailed doll’s house, the tiny furniture, the Brandt family’s Amsterdam canal house with its hidden secrets – all if it would transfer so perfectly to the screen, if only it were handled with love and care.
And now here it is, in prime position in the BBC’s festive TV schedule. Christmas wishes do come true.
There is, of course, a danger that a botched screen adaptation will take a sledgehammer to all those beautiful images the author has constructed in your head and replace them with something ugly, something wrong, something that distorts the original story.
BBC1’s two-part adaptation of The Miniaturist does none of these things. It’s wonderful.
In the feature-length first episode, wide-eyed young Petronella “Nella” Oortman (Anya Taylor-Joy) arrives in Amsterdam clutching a bird cage. Inside is her parakeet Peebo, and together they have arrived to live with Nella’s rich new husband Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell), who has paid off her family’s many debts in exchange for her hand in marriage. The year is 1686.
Emerging from the shadows comes Marin Brandt (Romola Garai), Johannes’ sister – and oh, she is magnificent.
Garai unpicks the many layers of Marin, who can be so deeply unpleasant and yet remain human and complex and understandable. She immediately confiscates Nella’s parakeet and denies the newcomer her favourite food: marzipan. Mean.
This is not the life Nella imagined for herself. It is Marin who is in charge, while she’s treated like a naughty little girl – and worse, Johannes shows no interest in her. He is perfectly polite but never comes to see her at night. Instead, he buys her a ridiculously expensive cabinet or “doll’s house” as a wedding gift.
Offended, Nella takes matters into her own hands and commissions “The Miniaturist” to make objects for her doll’s house, requesting a lute and a teeny-tiny box of marzipan as her own secret rebellion against the Brandts.
But things spiral out of control: little packages of unasked-for objects are delivered to the Brandt house, with eerily perfect dolls and dogs and cradles that seem to predict the future.
Who is The Miniaturist and why is this happening? The mystery starts to unravel in the first part of the story, although you’ll have to wait for episode two on 27th December for the really explosive revelations.
One major secret is revealed on Boxing Day, and that secret belongs to Johannes: he is gay, and has a male lover. That explains his attitude towards Nella, the wife he must marry in order to show the world he is a “normal” businessman in pious Amsterdam.
But this is an unconventional story, and these are unusual people to find in a period drama, so it doesn’t go quite the way you’d expect. Nella’s discovery of the truth actually heals the breach between them, knitting the couple together as Nella casts off the expectations of the age and become her own person. It’s wonderful to see her grow as a character, her naivety and reserve replaced by knowledge and determination.
Another discovery: Romola Garai’s Marin may be spiky and full of rage, but she has a vulnerable side. We see this in the first episode when Jack Philips and Frans Meermans threaten to unmask her brother. Fearing for Johannes’ life, she cries tears of fear and frustration and grief, revealing the depths of her love and loyalty.
In the final moments we see Nella take control, striking a jar of poison out of her sister-in-law’s hands. Pious, unwed Marin is attempting to abort the pregnancy she has been hiding beneath her cloaks and bindings.
Who is the father of Marin’s child? Will Johannes escape? What has happened to Otto, who stabbed Johannes’ lover before taking off? Why are the Meermans turning against the Brandts?
And the big question: who is The Miniaturist? So far we’ve only glimpsed her in flashes, a pallid blonde woman in a black cloak who looks like a Twilight vampire or that sinister lady from The Scottish Widow adverts. She watches Nella intensely and then melts back into the crowd.
There is lots to set up in the first episode of The Miniaturist, so if you’re wondering whether to hang on and watch the hour-long second episode, the answer is: stick with it. The pay-off comes, and it does not disappoint.
This article was originally published on 19 December 2017