Subjects within are larger than they appear in “The Miniaturist”
Updated: Sep 21, 2018
Blu-ray, DVD; 2017; Not Rated with sexuality and violence; streaming via via PBS Direct, Amazon Video, iTunes, YouTube
Best extra: A near 46-minute, detailed making-of
A SCENE in the second episode of the “The Miniaturist” shows a squad of soldiers breaking into a bakery in 17th century Amsterdam. They rush the cook/proprietors, grab up all the gingerbread cookies and dash them on the pavement outside.
Why? In this rich but repressed city governed by Christian extremists, those treats are considered pagan images. Idolatry. And like dolls and other human representations, they must be destroyed.
Luckily for all, the law didn’t extend to images created by artists such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. Their paintings inspired the costumes and settings for “The Miniaturist,” a three part miniseries based on the debut novel by English actress/writer Jessie Burton.
Burton first came up with the idea during a 2009 visit to Amsterdam, where she visited the Rijksmuseum. There, she discovered three lavishly decorated doll houses. These “cabinets” were replicas of their owner’s home, a way of showing off the family’s wealth and status to visitors. Burton’s main character, Petronella “Nella” Brandt played by Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Split,” “The Witch” and "Marrowbone," receives one of those grand cabinets as a wedding gift from her new husband, Johannes, played by Alex Hassell of “Suburbicon.” The doll house and its furnishings, most of which arrive as mysterious packages hinting at events to come, represents the claustrophobic atmosphere the Brandts and their servants experience as customs change and tighten around them.
The first episode is a gem. Petronella arrives at the Brandt, a beautiful young bride from a poor family in a rural community, now married to the richest commodities trader in town. Johannes is handsome, charming and mysterious, maybe a bit too mysterious. She is greeted by his ultra-devout sister, Marin (Romola Garai, “Atonement”). Marin has a thing about sugar; it's sinful. In several interviews, Burton says she based Marin on Mrs. Danvers, the grim housekeeper of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.”
“In my mind’s eye, all I could see was one young woman … turning up at this imposing merchant house on the Golden Bend of Amsterdam and meeting, through the darkness, this older woman – an imposing, authoritative, quite intimidating person – and the power play that would be exposed between them as they found their place with each other.” — Jessie Burton, author
The big secret of “The Miniaturist” is revealed at the end of the first episode. Dealing with it and its consequences for the family, their business and Nella continue through the next two chapters.
Executive Producer Kate Sinclair talks about the challenges of filming a series set in Amsterdam of the 1600s in the detailed making-of extra. “It’s a very repressive regime …and that is completely resonant now,” she says. “It’s a very feminist book. The central character is a woman; the women outnumber men in the story. It’s really about women creating their own future.”
In that one bonus feature from PBS, Production Designer Taff Batley takes us on a tour of the sets and furnishings of “The Miniaturist.” They are exquisite and look beautiful in the 1080p (1.78:1 ratio) transfer. The word “sumptuous” is often used, but it’s accurate. Intricately carved furniture, from life-size to miniature representations, are shown in amazing detail. Costumes in silks, brocades, fur and leather mimic the work of fine artists.
Costume designer Joanna Eatwell ("Wolf Hall," "Taboo") used the Dutch Masters as her inspiration for design, color and materials. “This is almost an untouched period … it hasn’t been [seen on] television in at least 30 years,” she says. There wasn’t much in the way of stock to draw from; everything had to be made. “The Dutch painted what we call ‘interior domestic scenes,’” she explains, providing models for servant, guildsmen, shipyard workers, and upper class. She demonstrates how a clothing design from a painting became one of Nella's costumes.
Viewers will find a lot of solid, gorgeous black throughout from plumed hats to shoes. “Often you see [the Dutch] in sober black. Black, as a dye, was the most expensive,” and another status symbol Burton says. Even so, they lined their clothing in fur, silks and brocades. “They looked very pious and modest, but they were actually quite epicurean.”
Lighting ranges from bright sunlight to gloom in exterior shots, and stunning candlelit rooms in interiors.
“The Miniaturist” is a dialogue-driven story, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack delivers every nuance. Immersive effects come from ambient environmental sound – soft footsteps, a party, street noise. Dan Jones composed the orchestral score.
“The Miniaturist” tries to deliver a lot in just under three hours. It succeeds more than it fails. In many ways, it's difficult to relate to the characters; they're too often distanced from viewers as well as each other. A new character, introduced in the third “act,” never quite clarifies the mystery; the feminist story is dry compared with its accompanying storyline. Pacing and focus wanders in the second and third episodes.
But the picture is gorgeous; immensely satisfying. The story held our interest, and we learned more about rich, repressive cultures, and the harm people can do to each other.
— Kay Reynolds