This review contains spoilers.
Boxing Day evening has become a strong slot to kick off dark BBC drama, with two excellent Agatha Christie adaptations being shown in recent years that have relished in the kind of misdeeds that suit the post-gift comedown. This year we had a break from the golden era of crime for something contemporary: Jessie Burton’s bestselling novel The Miniaturist, published in 2014, adapted for the screen by John Brownlow. Still firmly in the realm of mystery, this was not about murder, but offered a very intriguing set of puzzles to be solved – although the answer were, perhaps, less suited to the screen than the page.
Some elements were a gift to the eyes: seventeenth century Amsterdam brings to mind the paintings of masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, and director Guillem Morales took every opportunity to capture that quality of light, and use it to best advantage. Nella Oortman (Anya Taylor-Joy), the naive young woman brought to Amsterdam as a bride to a rich merchant she barely knows, shines in bright dresses that reflect the light beautifully, and she has an exotic green parrot as a pet – the two of them bring such colour to the dark and forbidding town house that is her new home. Nella’s appearance is a direct contrast to the severe black and white dresses and dour expression of Marin Brandt (played by Romola Garai), her new sister in law, who appears to be in charge of everything, and is very unwilling to change any aspect of the running of the household to suit Nella’s tastes.
So far so good – coming of age stories that feature a forbidding, even spooky, element have long been popular territory, from Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca to Guillermo Del Toro’s extravagant Crimson Peak. The element of the supernatural in the case of The Miniaturist springs from the doll’s house that bridegroom Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell) gives Petronella as a wedding present. Soon small items of furniture begin to arrive via messenger; then dolls that are obviously representations of members of the household. And then secrets are revealed: a set of keys, a crib, a hidden pregnancy. All via the skill of the Miniaturist. How could this pale craftswoman, glimpsed wandering beside the canals, know so much about the Brandt family?
If, like me, you find dolls houses innately creepy, then the idea of all this sounds rewardingly sinister. But although I was intrigued by this element, I didn’t find it as powerful as I thought I might. The dolls’ house itself, sitting in the corner of Nella’s room with a curtain blocking it from view, never quite commanded my attention, and there wasn’t a great deal of time spent on the small figures. What could have been genuinely scary stayed simply as a curiosity – what really commanded the attention in this adaptation was Marin Brandt, and her attempts to secure power.
While watching The Miniaturist I found myself thinking back on a different BBC adaptation – the 2011 version of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. The two have many elements in common: a great performance by Romola Garai, an examination of how women could find and use power in a society that sidelined them, and a look at how quickly that power can be destroyed by events beyond control, such as pregnancy. There’s also the coincidence that Garai’s character in The Crimson Petal and the White was called Sugar, and The Miniaturist is all about sugar. The trading of the sweet stuff dominates the more rewarding part of the narrative, and when the sugar starts to rot in the warehouse, then you know everyone is in trouble.
Even though there are many similarities between those adaptations, Garai’s performances are worlds away from each other. In one, she had to be all sweetness to secure any power, literally selling herself as an escape from unhappiness. In The Miniaturist, she keeps out all hint of emotion, never smiles, never shows weakness, and turns on anyone who dares to disagree with her. At least, until she crumbles and rots, just like the sugar in the warehouse, and then falls apart completely, and Petronella must step up to the task of saving the Brandts, if that’s possible.
What a brilliant actor Garai is, to inhabit these very different roles so well, and the sudden death of Marin left me feeling a bit bereft. The plot wound up, and we saw Nella, alone, suddenly thrust into power herself and determined to make good use of it, although you have to wonder how long she would manage to hold on to the reins in a world so firmly set against her.
As for the Miniaturist herself? The mystery turned out to be another facet of the problems all the characters faced – that nobody can escape their true nature, and there are no answers as to why we should all be born with certain gifts, traits or birthrights. This mirrored the inability of Johannes to hide his homosexuality, even though he knew he would be killed for it; the deeply affectionate relationship he had with his young wife was wonderfully done, turning the traditional romantic element associated with this kind of plot into something very moving, particularly on the eve of his execution, as Nella sat with him all night, and witnessed his death in the morning.
Considering there were so many strong elements to The Miniaturist I was surprised to find that I felt dissatisfied once the credits had rolled. I would be tempted to put it down the usual problems that come with adapting novels – there’s simply not enough time to put everything on screen. But, in this case, I think maybe there are elements that might just better suit a novel anyway. The story relies on the idea that the miniaturist has seen things that were there all the time but nobody else was paying attention to – Marin’s pregnancy, for instance. I can see how, on the page, that might make a lot more sense, with the novelist being able to hint at things, moments, asides, that build to create an agreement that those revelations were always close to make a satisfying denouement. On the screen, in this version, I’m not sure I could believe that.
For that reason, I now want to seek out the novel and read it for myself, just so I can see if those clues are present in the pages, or if the dolls themselves are used in a more effective fashion there. The Miniaturist was solid entertainment that held me, and I loved the performances throughout, and the way it looked. But I want to search for more detail to make this story really shine, and I wonder if I might find it in the intricate, up-close world of the novel instead.