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BBC TV Mini-Series Review: ‘The Miniaturist’

The Miniaturist
The Miniaturist

“THE Miniaturist” is a 3-hour BBC miniseries based on the 2014 novel by Jessie Burton and set in Amsterdam in the 1600s. Petronella or Nella (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Queen’s Gambit”), an 18-year old girl from a small rural town, is sold by her mother to a rich merchant, Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell), to pay for their family’s debts.

She arrives in his big, dark home in the city all by herself and the air is immediately filled with tension and mystery. Her husband is not there and she is welcomed by his cold and hostile sister, Marin (Romola Garai), who runs the household, and by their faithful servants, Cornelia (Hayley Squires) and Otto, a black guy (Paapa Essiedu).

At the start, the story seems like “Rebecca”, about a young bride who marries someone rich without really knowing him. Johannes is much older than her and she’s supposed to continue their family’s line. She is clothed in elegant gowns with sumptuous fabrics, but Johannes never makes love to her.

Marin is quite forbidding and will remind you of the strict Mrs. Danvers character in “Rebecca”. She has very Puritan ideals and is very ascetic and religious. She won’t even allow Nella to have some sweets, telling her: “We do not keep sugar in the house. The luxury of it sickens the soul.”

But Johannes himself is very generous to Nella. He gives her an expensive bridal present, a dollhouse that is an exact duplicate of their own home. Since her husband is often out on business, Nella gets busy with the dollhouse with items forwarded to her by the local miniaturist who seems to be very skilled.

All the items given to her, like chairs, tables and dishes, are exact replicas of the furniture and other things inside their own home. Later on, without even her asking for them, she is given small dolls that look like Marin, Cornelia and Otto, and other uncanny stuff that seems to predict future events, making it a big mystery for her.

She then tries to meet in person the miniaturist, whose identity is unknown, to ask her why she seems to know so much. We, too, as viewers, become curious about the underlying mysteries of the various items Nella is getting, including a baby crib and a doll that looks like the brash young man who serves as a messenger for them. But the miniaturist is so elusive and seems to be deliberately avoiding her.

The tone of the movie is quite sinister, menacing, but never really reaching the intensity of horror flicks. We cannot divulge anything more at this point, because everything else will be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the story has a rather tragic ending, but it also serves as a coming of age story.

It is an awakening for the teenage bride who starts as a damsel in distress but later on learns how to stand on her own two feet when one problem after another suddenly comes her way to confound her. You may or may not find satisfying how the storytelling goes, but there is no denying that the whole show is a lavish visual feast.

Its portrayal of Amsterdam in the story’s period backdrop seems pretty authentic, often told from the viewpoint of the marginalized. The cinematography and production design make every scene count and every frame is carefully crafted for maximum effect. The lighting of some scenes will make you recall the works of Dutch painters with its depiction of light and shadow with an otherworldly glow.

Anya Taylor Joy is truly impressive as the innocent bride who discovers one big secret after another and becomes a gutsy heroine. But even more compelling is Alex Hassell as Johannes, giving a much nuanced performance that brings so much pathos to his role, specially in the court scenes where he is practically a broken man. Romola Garai starts as a villain, but it turns out she’s not really Nella’s enemy and she brings much poignancy to what happens to her character.