It’s the most wonderful time of the year for us costume drama lovers! After something of a drought (Howard’s End being the notable exception), we got an avalanche of offerings. Christmas Day is traditionally given over to the feel-goods. The shows that aren’t going to make you think too hard, because let’s be honest: you’re stuffed, you’ve most likely drunk a bit more than is ideal, and you’re tired. You don’t want to have to think, and that’s fine. But Boxing Day, well, by then you should be in the mood for something a little more…atmospheric.
And so we have The Miniaturist. The BBC’s treatment of Jessie Burton’s superbestseller. I’ll confess I’ve not yet read the book. I mean to, just haven’t quite gotten there yet. Maybe that’s a good thing: I can judge this solely on its merit as a film, rather than constantly whining about how different it is from the book. Book readers: do feel free to add those comments in the comments!
Let’s meet our protagonist, Petronella ‘Nella’ Oortman Brandt. She arrives at the Amsterdam home of her new husband, and she brings a bird that she loves, so naturally it’s taken away from her the minute she steps through the door. No, it’s not taken by her husband, Johannes (who seems like a nice guy, and who gets along with her quite well), but by her sister-in-law, the stern, ascetic Marin. Marin prays a lot, thinks sugar is the devil, and is ruthlessly opposed to joy. We also later discover that she decorates her bedroom like it’s Snape’s laboratory. Cheery!
There are also two servants: Otto and Cornelia. Otto was a former slave, bought and rescued by Johannes, so he’s super loyal. Cornelia seems to have absorbed the anti-smile atmosphere of the house, but she loosens up enough over time to let Nella in on a bit of gossip. To wit: Marin wasn’t always the miserable, unlovable creature she appears to be. When she was very young (like, pre-pubescent young), she fell in love with a teenager named Frans. Frans fell in love with her, too, and when the pair was old enough he asked for Marin’s hand. But Johannes turned him down, because apparently Frans didn’t have the best reputation. Frans went on to marry a woman named Agnes, and now Frans hates Johannes and Agnes hates Marin, but they both have to keep dealing with the Brandts because Johannes is in charge of selling a huge shipment of sugar Frans has got his hands on.
The situation with the sugar, by the way, is a tad baffling. Johannes is just sitting on it, despite Marin and Frans leaning heavily on him to sell it, already. He later tells Nella that he’s postponing the inevitable sale entirely because he knows it’ll put a massive fortune in Frans’s hands and that’ll make Frans super powerful. So, instead he’s risking ruining the shipment and making Frans (who is clearly a man of means and importance, so he could, presumably, already make Johannes’s life difficult if he’s messed around with) an even bigger enemy. Good plan, Johannes! But, we’ll learn that Johannes, despite his obvious success, is perhaps not the most prudent of men.
As a wedding gift, Johannes gives Petronella an elaborate doll’s house. These sorts of houses were popular pasttimes for rich Dutch women at the time, but Nella’s a bit, ‘uh, what do I do with this?’ while Marin throws an absolute fit over how expensive this thing is. But, she knows Nella needs a hobby, because Nella’s kind of at loose ends here. She’s not really mistress of the house: that’s clearly Marin’s role (and Marin, by the way, has a very close relationship with her brother. So close that, in a fit of temper, Nella essentially accuses her husband of sleeping with Marin, which makes him uncharacteristically shouty). She’s not really a full wife to Johannes, although she’s desperate to be one. All she can do is dress up in the pretty clothes he gives her and wait for something to happen. Like a doll.
But now she has this fancy miniature house to do over, even if she can’t do much to her own, actual house, and Marin gives her a list of craftspeople to get in touch with for furnishings and such. Nella writes to one of them, requesting a few little pieces, which are delivered by an insolent young man named Jack. The sight of Jack at the front door seems to unnerve Johannes, who shoos him away quickly. When Nella opens the parcel from the miniaturist, she finds a rather cryptic note, along with the pieces she ordered (a lute that actually plays, a cage with a bird, a teensy silver box of marzipan, and some bonuses: a little dog that looks just like Johannes’s beloved pet, an exquisite cradle, and a model of a chair that sits in Nella’s bedroom. The sight of these last three items completely unnerves her (as they should, because she didn’t ask for or describe them, so the chair, at least, suggests this person has been in her room or knows someone who has) and she writes a scolding letter to the miniaturist, telling her not to send anything else.
But send she does! Nella keeps receiving little packages, which get creepier and creepier. One contains dolls of her husband and sister-in-law, parcelled together in a slightly suggestive manner. There’s also a model of a box that sits on her husband’s desk, complete with hidden compartment with a set of three keys. When Nella searches the actual box, she finds the compartment, but only two keys. There’s also a tiny broken cup, another set of dolls: all the servants, Frans and Agnes, and Jack. It seems everyone gets to live in this tiny house except for Nella herself.
This poor young woman is becoming increasingly unnerved by this creepiness, as well as the sense of gloom and secrecy around the house. Looking for answers, she surprises Johannes at his office and finds him getting a blowjob from Jack. And, I have to admit, I kind of called this early on, when Johannes and Nella were at a banquet. She asked him what he ate at sea, and he jokingly replied, ‘Other men.’ She laughed, but I kind of went, ‘Ohhhhhhh’. Nice to be right!
Not so nice for Nella, though, who freaks the hell out and races back out onto the street, where she’s immediately grabbed by Otto and Cornelia, who drug her so hard she’s out for three days. When she comes to, she’s greeted by the sight of Marin, who works overtime to try and get into Nella’s good graces. She’s got cinnamon biscuits and everything! When Nella suggests she’s not interested in playing this game, Marin breaks out the big guns and tells Nella exactly what will happen to Johannes if she tells anyone what she saw. Nella, being a decent human being and all, doesn’t want to see her husband drowned, so she backs down.
Later, Johannes comes home and tries to explain himself, although it’s not really the kind of thing you can explain. I mean, it’s just what you are, and he says as much, although you’d think this guy would have the sense not to be carrying on in this manner in the very place he does business. He’s not doing so well with self-preservation.
He offers her freedom: safe passage home, enough money to pay off her family’s debts, and an annulment. For some reason, she decides to stay. Now, maybe this was handled better in the book, but I find this to be a baffling turn in the film. She’s miserable here. She seems to have nothing but fond memories of her home and family, whereas in Amsterdam she’s drowning in boredom and suspicion. Her husband is at very real risk of being arrested and executed at a moment’s notice, which would render her and everyone else in this household destitute and disgraced. He’s offering her a good deal here, and there’s been nothing so far to suggest she feels particularly tied to this place. If anything, she’s been given every reason to leave. So, I’m just not buying that she’d willingly agree to stay in this total sham marriage, in a scene where, just moments before, she said she had no interest in a sham marriage!
But yeah, ok, she stays. And Johannes finally goes to Venice to see about selling that sugar. While he’s gone, Jack shows up at the house, delivers a parcel from the miniaturist, and demands to see Johannes. Everyone tells him Johannes is away, so he tells Nella that Johannes is most likely on a sex trip and threatens Marin with a knife. Marin absolutely refuses to be cowed and boredly asks what it’ll cost to make Jack disappear. Otto appears, and the dog gets involved, so Jack stabs the dog, and now I’m like, ‘Ok, guys, go ahead and just kill this asshole.’ I mean, the dog!
Otto grabs him, and there’s a tussle, and Jack is stabbed through the shoulder. Too good for him, I say. He flees, but now Otto’s panicking, sure the authorities will be down on him in an instant for stabbing a white man. Marin points out that that would be pretty stupid, since surely the authorities would ask the other members of the household what happened, and I’m pretty sure Marin’s and Nella’s stories would count for a lot more than a rentboy’s in this society. Still, Marin secretly urges Otto to run, and he does.
Johannes returns home to discover his dog’s dead and his boyfriend’s not happy. He tracks Jack down and apparently he’s ok, more’s the pity. But things are about to get worse: the next day, Frans shows up at the house, enraged because his damn sugar is still sitting in the warehouse, growing mouldy, and when Frans went to inspect it, he found Johannes in flagrante with a young man. He’s ready to go to the authorities and whirls out in a rage.
Marin begins to panic, but Nella’s got some ice in her veins and calmly assesses the situation. She decides they need to get Johannes out of the city and find a way to sell the sugar, to appease Frans.
When Johannes gets home, Nella tells him to get out of town. He prepares to flee, handing over the key to his warehouse and a list of people who can help with the sugar sale.
Nella goes searching for the miniaturist, whom she’s pretty sure is this creepy blue-eyed woman she keeps seeing around (and whom she’s seen talking to Agnes, at one point), but discovers her workshop empty. A neighbour says the militia came by, so the woman’s gone.
But frankly, Nella has other things to worry about. I mean, besides her husband having to flee, and the family having a powerful enemy and a sword hanging over them. She returns home to find Marin about to drink something from a cup. Nella knocks it out of Marin’s hand, and it shatters (remember the broken cup from the miniaturist?) It seems that Marin was attempting to induce a (very late, by the look of things) abortion. Oh, my.
Well, this is gonna be interesting.