It’s not difficult to see why the manuscript for Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist became the subject of a publishers’ bidding war at the 2013 London Book Fair. Set in 17th-century Amsterdam, and making an imaginary leap into the backstory of a Dutch masterpiece, the similarities with Tracy Chevalier’s global bestseller Girl with the Pearl Earring must have been too striking to ignore.
Chevalier’s novel quickly received the Hollywood treatment, with Scarlett Johansson as Vermeer’s enigmatic servant girl, and made a handsome return at the box office. So what is perhaps surprising about the inevitable screen version of The Miniaturist is that it landed up at the BBC. And what is doubly surprising is that the BBC has gone with a relatively unknown cast. The screen adaptation imagines a fictional story behind the elaborate 1690s dollhouse – now held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – belonging to a wealthy widow.
The 21-year-old American-born Argentine-British actress Anya Taylor-Joy plays Nella, the genteelly impoverished country girl at the centre of the story, who is married off unseen to a wealthy Amsterdam merchant called Johannes Brandt – played by Alex Hassell, an actor whose work has chiefly been for the Royal Shakespeare Company (his acclaimed Henry V at Stratford in 2015 being compared favourably to Benedict Cumberbatch’s contemporaneous Hamlet). In fact, standing out amidst a cast list that would be more familiar to regular theatre-goers than your average BBC1 audience is one name – that of Romola Garai.
Not that Garai is a household name exactly, although Golden Globe-nominated stints opposite Dominic West in The Hour, and in the title role of Emma in 2009, and films such as Atonement and Suffragette all mean that she is perhaps more ‘bankable’ than her co-stars in The Miniaturist. And she seems to have a face and persona that appears to cry out ‘costume drama’ to casting directors, meaning she has had more than her fair share of period pieces.
“You get sent the jobs you get sent,” she says, as I interrupt her lunch break on the Hertfordshire set of The Miniaturist – the same Jacobean stately home and former boarding school where the St Trinians movies were filmed. “And I have done a disproportionate number of historical pieces.”24.12.2017