[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from the finale of “The Miniaturist.”]
In “The Miniaturist” finale, the promising life Nella (Anya Taylor-Joy) thought she would have when she married and moved to Amsterdam resulted in horror and heartbreak. The city may have been enjoying a Dutch Golden Age of art, innovation, and trade, but that also led to a blinkered commerce-driven ambition that had no tolerance for those that didn’t seem to conform or contribute. On Sunday’s episode, that took its toll on the Brandt family twice over.
Nella’s husband Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell) went on trial for supposedly forcing himself on another man, reneging on a business deal, and being homosexual — a crime in 17th century Amsterdam. Eventually, the verdict came in clearing him on all counts except for the last one, which unfortunately carried a death sentence. After spending an evening in jail comforting her husband, the next day she watched as he was publicly executed by drowning.
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IndieWire spoke to author Jessie Burton, who wrote the novel on which the miniseries is based, about Johannes and his tragic fate.
“One of the reasons I did decide that Johannes was going to be gay was because I read when I was doing my historical research that at that particular time in Amsterdam, there was a real spike in the murder of gay men,” she said. “They were drowning them in the canals or in the sea with huge millstone around their necks as a quite symbolic murder because the water was so important to Holland. It had shored itself up from the sea. It was like, ‘If you’re not going to play your role in building the country, literally by procreating…’ they were not civically minded, and they were undermining the families, the microcosm of the state. I thought that was horrific.”
The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowi
Star Taylor-Joy reflected on how — even though Nella didn’t realize she was coming into the marriage as a beard — in the end, a poignant friendship had grown between her and Johannes.
“She’s a very empathetic person once her shell cracked open, once she grows up a little bit. I think she loves how much he enjoys life, and she’s fascinated by him,” she said. “Nella is very adventurous, and this is a man who’s traveled the world and been on the ocean the majority of his life. He’s charming and witty, and people seem to admire him. I think she really admires him, and she really looks up to him.”
“Then as she realizes that he really doesn’t have a safe space or somebody to talk to, she becomes almost that maternal environment for him to be himself. She really values the fact that he can be himself around her. It’s not a love story, but it still is. Whenever Alex and I were doing those scenes, it felt so warm and protective and familial.”
Similarly, a begrudging trust and respect also sprang up between Nella and her sister-in-law, the seemingly strict and devout Marin (Romola Garai). It turns out, however, that Marin was far more progressive than she let on. Not only did she choose to remain unmarried despite a viable romantic offer, but she also carried on an affair with their manservant Otto (Paapa Essiedu), which resulted in a lovechild. None of these actions would’ve been condoned, much less understood by Dutch society at that time, and yet Nella found sympathy and admiration for Marin’s path.
The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowicz
“There’s a wonderful line that Romola says where she says, ‘I’m running my own house, and I was running a business. Was I supposed to give that up for a man? I don’t think so,’” said Taylor-Joy. “That’s such a modern thought to have, and to see it in that period, you realize people were thinking that. It’s just that society had different ideas. I think it’s really wonderful to see all these people within the safety of this house, that at first seems oppressive, really just own themselves and be who they are.”
The only other person who seemed to realize what was happening in the houseful of misfits was an outsider herself: The Miniaturist (Emily Berrington). While her handiwork was impeccable, it was her preternatural insight into what was going on — or about to happen — in the Brandt household that made her a figure of mystery. By the end of the series, she tries to refute having any sort of special powers, saying that she’s merely observant, but she did acknowledge that sometimes, a voice would come inside her head. Presumably this knack also spooked others, and she became a target for the government, who shut down her shop.
“The decision to make her a woman was to add one more little political chip to the fire and to point out women weren’t really allowed to join guilds,” said Burton. “She was acting illegally. You’re not really supposed to trade if you’re not a member of the guild, but the guild wouldn’t have her, so she did work constantly on the run from the authorities. She’s an outsider. She’s a rebel. She’s an antagonist. They don’t like her. They want to shut her down.”
Between Marin and the Miniaturist, Nella learned to think beyond her initial dreams of what her life would be like in Amsterdam. In addition to making creepy and prescient items for Nella’s dollhouse, she included notes with inspirational phrases on them.
When Nell finally corners the Miniaturist before Johannes’ execution, she denies that she has power to change the outcome and instead points to how Nell has power.
“She’s a kind of spiritual guide and a teacher to Nella, a mentor, trying to teach Nella that actually Nella is the one in charge of her fortune,” said Burton. “That’s why of course the miniaturist is not there in the end. Nella becomes the miniaturist. Nella is the controller.”
Despite this message of empowerment, the realities of the time take over. Johannes is killed, and Marin dies after childbirth. Perhaps if she had been able to have medical attention and not hide her illicit condition, she may have been saved. Or maybe not. Regardless, Nella finds herself suddenly thrust into running a household along with Otto, his child, and maid Cornelia (Hayley Squires). It’s an odd, makeshift family born of tragedy. But it’s also one that gives an opportunity to this foursome that they may have not had before.
Although it’s been four years since Burton’s novel had been published, she’d be open to writing a sequel, to continuing Nella and her family’s journey if the story were right.
“It would be hard to force it, but I’ve got other projects that I’m honoring at the moment. Obviously, it’s in my mind,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting the response to the book that was so warm and overwhelming, if I’m honest. I didn’t realize that those characters would mean so much to so many people and they’d want more. Maybe I’ll have to honor that.
“I think there is something there,” she added. “I haven’t thought about what it is yet, but I realize I’ve left it so open-ended. I do feel like it’s quite nice to write a novel’s end with a beginning. There is a sense that there could be absolutely other stories, other journeys for those survivors of that tragedy to take.”