The TV adaption of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist (2017) set in 1686 Amsterdam was co-produced by the BBC and PBS, and it aired in the U.K. last Christmas. PBS has been teasing and previewing it since last fall, so it’s annoying to have had to wait a year to finally see it here in the states! Was it worth the wait? Pretty much, at least as a costume drama. I can’t speak to how well the book was adapted since I haven’t read it, but I have some opinions on the story, which is chock full of twists, so warning, if you haven’t seen it yet, here be spoilers.
The tale has a fascinating background because Burton based it on an actual museum object and used the real names of the owners (although not their life story). In a BBC interview, she explains:
“I was in Amsterdam on holiday. We went to the Rijksmuseum and that’s where I first saw the real dolls house, which is actually called a cabinet, which became the symbol of the novel and my point of focus for writing it. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it was and how imposing it was, as well as intricate and intimate.
Then when I found out that the woman who owned it, Petronella Oortman, spent as much money on it as a real house, I became interested in the psychology of the cabinet house and what it symbolised, both in regards to the city of Amsterdam and this woman is her domestic, claustrophobic existence. It took her 19 years in total to complete it and she hired the services of over 800 craftsmen and women in the city of Amsterdam and beyond.”
Burton did extensive research into historical era for the book, and likewise, the producers and designers did a great deal of research into everything from the authentic locations to the period costumes and the elaborate miniatures that are the focus of so much of the story.
Joanna Eatwell is the costume designer, best-known for her amazing work on Wolf Hall (2015), and she definitely did her homework here. According to PBS, there was some hand-sewing involved in the costumes for The Miniaturist:
“Costume designer Joanna Eatwell (also of Wolf Hall), whenever possible, employed “Original Practice,” a technique that uses patterns and methods from the corresponding historical period, which means lots of hand sewing of fibers that were available at the time.”
Let’s run through the major costumes in the miniseries, then I’ll talk a little bit about the plot itself. As I warned, there may be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the show yet, sorry, but there are major twists that I can’t avoid mentioning!
Petronella’s Orange Velvet Doublet & Red Skirt
This is the outfit she wears at home in the countryside and when she arrives in Amsterdam. As a result, it’s a little more plain than everything else she wears, but the shape and cut are still fashionable for the period. No slashed sleeves is the main difference here.
Petronella’s White Silk Mules
Immediately upon arriving in the Brandt home, Nella is presented with these shoes embroidered with her new monogram. Their delicacy shows these shoes are intended for indoor wear as the new lady of the house, and they’re are often seen at her bedside.
Petronella’s Blue Silk Gown
This slashed-sleeve gown has a split-front skirt and is worn over a pale green petticoat (she has a coordinating capelet also). The dress was a gift from her husband, so doesn’t fit at her first wearing. Later on, she’s had it altered to her size. That would have been an interesting challenge for both the costume department and the director — films aren’t always shot sequentially, so they’d have to have made sure to schedule the shots of her in the bigger dress first, then give the costumers time to alter the gown, then shoot the later scenes!
Petronella’s Yellow Silk Gown
This is another slashed-sleeve, split-front gown, and it’s worn with pale tan (?) petticoat. There’s wide lace at the collar.
Petronella’s Black & Gold Gown
This is her fanciest gown, which Nella wears to a feast and when guests come over for dinner. The style is more fitted and with a lower neckline than her usual gowns, although it still has the split front and slashed sleeves. Hard to tell the fabric colors because the scenes are so dark — there’s black and gold and brown going on. She also wears her most elaborate hairstyle and jewelry with this gown.
Petronella’s Red Silk Doublet & Brown Silk Skirt
Great example of 17th-century mix-and-match. She wears this slashed-sleeve doublet and skirt outfit with different partlets and kerchiefs on different days. Joanna Eatwell did a nice job of giving Nella a full wardrobe of pieces that approximate how much clothes a woman of this station would have, instead of making brand-new things for each scene.
Petronella’s Brown Silk Doublet & Orange Silk Skirt
This doublet has excellent piping all along the front and back seams, as well as a cute little peplum.
Petronella’s Servant Disguise
When Nella first visits her husband Johannes in jail, she doesn’t want to be recognized, so she dresses up as a servant. It’s not clear if these are clothes borrowed from Cornelia or something she had stashed away from her days at home in the country. The fit and cut are excellent, and the jacket features embroidery at the cuffs.
Petronella’s Purple Gown
Her mourning gown is still richly elegant in a pinstripe purple with black trim along the bodice. It’s in her standard split-front style and worn with an almost matching solid purple petticoat.
From the very beginning, we see that Nella wears stays because her mother laces her up (and no sign of metal grommets, yay!). Her stays are edged with red embroidery and accented with flossing along the center, side, and back bones. She also has excellent 17th-century embroidery on her smocks.
In a BBC interview with actress Anya Taylor-Joy who played Nella, she said:
“I was on set every single day, every single second, so that definitely felt that I was going through ‘corset training 101’ or something — but it was an awesome experience and the costumes were beautiful.”
The accessories really make these costumes look like real clothing. Caps, collars, capelets, mitts, and muffs are in abundance. For example, Nella has an assortment of caps (although her hairstyle is almost always the same, boring, pulled-back braid-and-twist). She has capelets that coordinate her outfits, such as a brown ones for orange and red outfits and a green one with her blue gown.
Marin’s Black Gown
Johannes’ sister wears essentially the same outfit during the whole series, and it’s not very remarkable. Except that 1) it’s right out of a 1660s painting, and 2) there’s a key scene when Nella notices how the miniaturist has made a doll of Marin and used the same fabric to recreate Marin’s gown. So there’s that.
In a BBC interview with actress Romola Garai, who plays Marin, she explains:
“Marin only had one costume until a very late stage of the story. Her costume is typical of the puritan values of the period which rejected anything that smacked of luxury or louche values. They also didn’t wear make-up in this period at all, certainly not women of this class and station, and the hair was very simple and scraped back. Her head would have been covered at all times, so I had a black cap that I wore, but to be honest when I wore it I couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying and also talked incredibly loudly because I couldn’t hear myself, so essentially I was shouting at the other actors!”
The Brandt household is rich, so the servants are well-dressed too. Their clothes are cut in a reasonably fashionable shape, but in plain fabrics suited to their work. Cornelia wears stays and gets some embroidery on her smocks. Otto has a bit of trim and shiny buttons on his waistcoat. But mostly they’re dressed in sober, respectable garb.
Yeah, yeah, I’m giving short shrift to the men, so sue me. Their costumes look fine, like the portraits, but they don’t excite me, plus this story isn’t too much about them! Still, I needed to point out one thing. Johannes wears a puffy shirt done right. Meaning, there are ribbons tying his sleeves into puffs. No elastic! This is not Seinfeld or Versailles, thank the gods!
Other Costumes in The Miniaturist
Frans and Agnes Meermans are Johannes’ business partners (and there’s more backstory between them and Marin). Agnes is the only very wealthy woman seen in the show, and the only one who actually has her hair in a truly fashionable style. However, this is only shown in some very dark scenes so I couldn’t get good screencaps! Weirdly, it’s best shown on the doll the miniaturist makes of Agnes. In other scenes, Agnes’ clothing extravagance is easily on display.
Now about the story itself! Overall, I enjoyed watching The Miniaturist — it moves along at a nice clip with tight plotting, good casting, and excellent acting. This rather like a Jane Austen story mixed with a Poldark plot in that genteel misdirections and slightly ridiculous subterfuges make everything happen. It’s not exactly a mystery, since the big “surprises” are both fairly easy to figure out by the viewer, just not by the characters, and they’re exposed somewhat early on as they’re crucial to moving the story ahead (except for one final reveal).
I’m torn by how first plot point — that Johannes is gay — is handled within the story. Yes, a rich Dutch merchant who’s homosexual would need to marry a woman as a beard to hide his true self. I could even buy that his sister and two servants would help keep his secret because, at the very least, that maintains their own lifestyles. And I can get Nella’s reaction because she does go through both anger, revulsion, and then acceptance, which seem appropriate to the period.
What I didn’t like was Johannes himself being painted as such a horndog, where being gay was all about getting fucked whenever, wherever, and by whatever he could. Sure, that’s a thing! But that was his only thing! He was so one-dimensional that made me wonder why the household went to extremes to protect him, and not in a mercenary “this is a comfortable house” fashion. Everyone seemed so high-minded and had so much love and respect for Johannes, while he was just interested in getting his rocks off, so who cares if they drown him? Really, let him go.
Conversely, some of the criticisms of the book seem to be remedied in the TV version. Where The Guardian‘s book review said Nella “has a sensibility more akin to that of a 21st-century teenager than a 17th-century one: outspoken, determined, reflexively feminist,” I found Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Nella appropriately naive at first, as truths slowly dawned on her. The Chicago Tribune‘s book review complains about the unlikelihood of the story happening at all, which, OK, yeah, sure, this is definitely a broad fiction, it’s not a slice-of-life thing! But the reviewer has a lot of issues:
“…their behavior, sometimes, just doesn’t make sense. Nella’s reaction to her husband’s secrets, when they are exposed, doesn’t seem to be the response of a naive 17th-century country girl, but rather that of a more worldly 21st-century woman. Her business acumen, when called upon, seems seasoned and knowledgeable, though she has never worked a day in her life. The risks Johannes takes to satisfy his sexual needs — including open-air trysts and encounters in unlocked rooms — seem overly careless.”
The TV version felt like it addressed all of these concerns quite neatly. Nella’s reaction was partly religious — she does yell out something about ‘now I know my husband is condemned to hell’ — and partly self-centered, which is typical teenage angst. She gets over it when the risks to the rest of the household and even her family back in the country are explained to her. Nella’s business acumen, on screen, seems more like taking a risk and getting lucky than having advanced skill. As for Johannes’ behavior, c’mon, getting caught during a sex act is one of the oldest tropes in storytelling. At least on TV, it only appears to happen twice, which isn’t overly careless. Maybe there’s something to be said for the shortcuts that TV takes at times.
Have you seen The Miniaturist? Did you read the book? What did you think?