“The Miniaturist” is anything but a run-of-the-mill period drama, and the premiere’s ending proved that. The main currency in PBS’ miniseries is surprise, ranging from the small moments of wonder to the mysterious revelations regarding the miniatures that furnish the dollhouse belonging to new 17th-century Dutch bride Petronella (Anya Taylor-Joy), aka Nella.
The biggest shocker, however, came in the last moments of the episode after elaborate misdirection had been built up. Petronella had arrived in Amsterdam and was greeted, not by her new husband Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassle), but coldly by her strict sister-in-law Marin (Romola Garai). Passive-aggressive behavior, whispered conversations, Johannes avoiding consummating their marriage, and other clues pointed to Johannes possibly preferring his sister’s company over his wife’s. Even busybody Agnes Meermans (Aislín McGuckin) seemed as if she were about to announce the unspoken taboo that was on everyone’s minds.
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But when Petronella opened the door to the backroom in Johannes’ office after hearing moaning, it was not to find her husband in an incestuous relationship with his sister, but having sex with another man. The secret that the servants in the household and Marin had been keeping was that Johannes is gay, and Petronella had been brought in as his unwitting beard.
IndieWire spoke to “The Miniaturist” author Jessie Burton and star Anya Taylor-Joy about Johannes’ secret, what this means for Petronella, and the bizarre extravagance of the Dutch dollhouses.
The Women Came First
Burton did not start with Johannes’ sexuality when she first conceived of the novel. Instead, she began writing with the image in her head of a young woman entering a house met by an older, more aloof woman, much like the beginning of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.”
“The way I wrote it was feeling my way in. [’Rebecca’] is one of the first adult novels I read when I was about 12, so I think it’s kind of imprinted on my DNA,” said Burton. “In my mind’s eye, all I really had to go on when I started the novel was that scene where Nella turns up, and there’s Marin emerging out of the darkness like some kind of witch on casters. She floats out, and immediately this power play begins between the women.”
Nella’s position isn’t unusual for the time. As a pretty but penniless young woman, she had contracted a marriage with the wealthy Johannes.
“She was excited to go to Amsterdam. She was excited to marry this man and escape her situation,” Taylor-Joy told IndieWire. “I’m sure that there were women like that, but usually the story that you get is, ‘Oh no, I’m being sold to this wealthy man, and I don’t want to go.’
“She had this whole image of what she thought she was supposed to do. I think it’s very interesting to have somebody that has an intention, and then when arriving in the situation that they find themselves in, have it all stripped away, have them have to basically grow up and figure out who they are on the fly.”
Burton added, “I thought what if Nella is brought in as a beard, as a protection, and then finds out, she has to make the moral decision of whether she’s going to report him or accept this rather strange existence that actually benefits her hugely.”
At the time, being a gay man was an offense punishable by death in Amsterdam. Nella’s world wasn’t just changed by having a husband who many never desire her, but by the fact that she was now roped into keeping a major secret from a judgmental society.
The Real Dutch Dollhouses
The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowicz
Burton was inspired to write her story after seeing the real-life Petronella Brandt’s dollhouse in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. These extravagant “cabinet houses” were objects of wealth to display and show off at parties.
“They were really popular in northern Europe. They weren’t for children. They were not toys. They were status symbols,” she said. “They would often be exhibited in the hallway. As you walked in, as a guest, you would see the entire thing of the house before you then went into the house. Quite meta. It was like a proto-Facebook if you like.
“You’d be told, ‘Look, we’ve got this new painting by Cuyp. There it is. You can’t see the real thing, but you can see the miniature.’ When you’ve got all the money in the world, what are you going to do? Okay, let’s miniaturize our house. Let’s memorialize our existence and show off.”
While the craftsmanship that goes into the cabinet houses are remarkable, it’s their cost that really plays a part in the bizarre situation that Nella has found herself in. Perhaps overcompensating for his neglect and not revealing his true nature to his Nella, Johannes purchased a cabinet house that cost around 3,000 guilders, which could’ve easily fed a family for several years.
“It’s honestly aesthetically such a stunning piece of craftsmanship. It’s enameled with tortoiseshell and pewter, and everything inside is real crystal and real silver,” Burton said of the real Oortman cabinet house. “Everything is exactly as it would be in a real house. I was just drawn to that intricacy and the intimacy of it, but also it’s so imposing. It’s really big. It wasn’t until later I found out that she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on it. I mean, it’s crazy, crazy money. That’s when I just that that’s really interesting.”
The Inherent Creepiness of Dolls and Dollhouses
The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowicz
Beyond just seeing the cabinet house in a museum, Taylor-Joy was able to interact with the replica made for the series.
“It was terrifying to handle those miniatures because they’re so small and they’re so delicate,” she said. “You’re handling them for camera, and you’re just like, ‘Oh please, god, don’t let me break it.’ It was amazing. We were all absolutely fascinated by the cabinet. From the second that it arrived, obviously they matched it to look like our set. Patronella Brandt’s original one matches her own home rather than our set. It was just the attention to detail was crazy. We all had a favorite different aspect of the house. Rezeki the dog, was my favorite. So cute, and it looked exactly like him.”
In the miniseries objects and dolls of the Brandt household arrive in packages that are a constant source of amazement and sometimes anxiety for Nella, who hasn’t commissioned any of the figurines at all. Dollhouses have been used in literature and media often to mirror dark actions, such as in HBO’s “Sharp Objects.” There is an inherent creepiness to dolls and dollhouses, most likely related to automotonophobia and the fear of human-like figures that are just the slightest bit “off.”
“I remember the first day that we all saw our dolls,” said Taylor-Joy. “Hayley [Squires]’ one looked so much like her. I get shivers thinking about it. I hadn’t seen it before I shot the scene where I discover her [doll]. Then all of a sudden I saw her. That reaction is completely genuine of on my god, how did the capture the likeliness of this person and make it tiny? It’s weird when you’re holding your best friend in your hands, and you’re like okay. That creeped me out.”
Burton also pointed out that most of the dolls from the real-life cabinet houses have gone missing for unknown reasons.
“I find it really creepy. The only doll that was surviving in the Nella house was a baby,” she said. “Where did they go? Did you have an argument with your husband, and you just chucked [his doll] in the canal? I don’t know what happened. Maybe they weren’t made of as durable material. Petronella Oortman’s mother had a house. Petronella de la Court, her name was. That one has dolls in, and they’re weird looking. They don’t match the perfection of the furniture and the accessories. They’re not proportional or anything.”
The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowicz
Another ongoing question in the series is the identity of the craftsperson who is making all of the items for the dollhouse because she appears to know the Brandts’ secrets. Burton similarly built that mystery gradually as she wrote about the setting for Nella’s cabinet house.
“I just thought Amsterdam is such an interesting city. It’s the perfect backdrop to this house, to this potential story of wealth and danger and women’s … fight for a voice,” she said. “The whole idea of this miniaturist coming in and influencing Nella and Johannes’ life, that didn’t come immediately.
“I didn’t know whether this was magic realism or a thriller or historical. I just knew that I wanted to tell a story of this family under pressure with all their secrets that were going to threaten to ruin their lives and in fact endanger their lives.”
”The Miniaturist” airs its second and third installments at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 16 and 23, respectively, on PBS.