The so-called ‘golden age’ of Amsterdam in 1686 is a curious and discomforting mix of excess and fanatical religious devotion, when Petronella Brandt (Anya Taylor-Joy) arrives to join her husband, successful merchant Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell), and start her new life.
Arriving at her new home, Nella is met by Johannes’ cold and unwelcoming sister, Marin (Romola Garai), with her husband nowhere to be found. Nella soon has the unpleasant realisation that her married life won’t be exactly what she’d hoped for. When Johannes eventually appears, he’s kind, yet distant, and the dark rooms of their home pulse with tension and secrets.
Upon showing Nella her bedroom, Marin pronounces, “This used to be my room, but it had the better view, so he gave it to you.” Nella insists Marin reclaim her room. “You misunderstand,” says Marin. “The view is of you. Amsterdam must see that Johannes Brandt has a new wife.”
Shortly after his new bride arrives, Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift: an expensive and ornate cabinet dollhouse that’s an exact replica of their Amsterdam home.
To furnish the rooms of her dollhouse, Nella engages the services of a mysterious miniaturist. Upon opening her first order from the miniaturist, Nella discovers a note, bearing the phrase, ‘Every woman is the architect of her own fortune’.
The phrase is contradictory to Nella’s circumstances – she had little say in her choice of husband, having been married off by her mother, after the death of her father left the family drowning in debt.
But is the mysterious miniaturist Nella’s ally, or is something more sinister afoot? Along with the pieces she ordered, Nella receives additional items that are eerily identical to the furniture in the Brandt household, and as more pieces arrive, the miniaturist morphs from craftsperson to prophet, and events take a turn for the downright disturbing.
Lavishly executed, with meticulous attention to detail, The Miniaturist is an adaptation of the 2014 debut novel by Jessie Burton. The framing of every scene is deliberate and considered, and this has the effect of transforming the Brandt household into a life-sized doll’s house, with the viewer peering in.
Romola Garai gives an utterly compelling and deeply unsettling performance as Johannes’ seemingly sanctimonious sister, Marin.
“When you first meet her, because the story is told through Nella’s perspective, you meet a woman who seems very cold and intimidating,” Garai says.
“Then gradually you get this drip-feed of information about her; you see she’s been helping Johannes run the business… She’s very intellectual, she’s very well read, and she’s not married, which is very unusual at the time.”
However, the women of Amsterdam in the mid seventeenth century were restricted in just about every facet of their lives, the least of which were the physical constrictions of cumbersome clothing.
“I think as a woman it transports you,” said Anya Taylor-Joy. “It’s like an ancestral memory of, ‘Wow, they really didn’t want us doing anything.’ Running in that thing is hard. Breathing in a corset is difficult.”
However intriguing and dark the series is, there are some moments of droll humour. A homesick Nella requests some marzipan and is promptly rebuffed by Marin.
“We do not keep sugar in the house,” she says. “The luxury of it sickens the soul. Cornelia will bring you a herring.”
Stream the complete season of The Miniaturist at SBS On Demand.
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