Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist sold more than a million copies when it came out in 2014. Will the BBC’s Christmas dramatisation be an equally king-sized hit?
Isn’t it strange? You wait for ages for a lavish literary adaptation set in 17th Century Holland, and then two come along at once.
Yet the makers of The Miniaturist will doubtless be hoping the two-part BBC One drama gets a warmer reception than the film version of Tulip Fever suffered this summer.
Released in the US in September, the star-studded film of Deborah Moggach’s 1999 novel was mauled by the critics and currently has a lowly 10% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It was definitely a case of ruff justice for the much-delayed period piece, which looks set to be one of the last titles to be released by the beleaguered Weinstein Company.
The future looks far brighter for The Miniaturist however. A highlight of BBC One’s Christmas schedule, it promises two sumptuous hours of mystery, intrigue… and miniature furniture.
Based on Jessie Burton’s award-winning novel, it also features a parrot, a dog and tiny figurines of its cast members.
“If you do costume drama, this is as close as you come to having an action figure,” laughs actress Romola Garai.
“We were all very excited to handle our miniatures,” she reveals. “Their arms and legs move and their eyes follow you around the room.”
Set in Amsterdam in 1686, The Miniaturist tells of an 18-year-old woman named Petronella Oortman – played by Anya Taylor-Joy (who starred in the movie Split) – who is newly married to a wealthy merchant.
Arriving from the countryside with only a parakeet for company, “Nella” is disconcerted by the chilly welcome she gets from her husband’s sister Marin (Garai) and by her new hubby’s lengthy absences.
She’s even more perturbed by the wedding gift she receives from husband Johannes (Alex Hassell): a doll’s house replica of their home that he tasks her to have furnished.
This leads her to make contact with the miniaturist of the title, an elusive presence who seems to know intimate details of what goes on behind closed doors.
Burton was inspired to write her debut novel by an elaborate doll’s house – the proper name is cabinet – that is on permanent display at Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” says the former actress. “I read that it cost as much as a full-blown town house.”
No expense has been spared either in bringing her book to the screen, in a drama that juxtaposes the austere interiors of Nella’s new home with the high society in which Johannes operates.
“It was wonderful to see the way the light played off all the different textures,” says Hassell of one party scene lit entirely by flickering candles.
“It looks like a painting and very Christmassy,” he continues.
“It was really important to get the contrast between the spare and the opulent,” explains executive producer Kate Sinclair.
(Look closely and you’ll see Burton herself as an extra in this sequence.)
It took more than money, though, to ensure Mr Scraps, the dog cast as Johannes’ pooch Rezeki, played ball on set.
“Mr Scraps was pretty hopeless,” sighs Garai. “He could only do the things he had to do to the sound of a flushing toilet.
“We had to do these very serious takes to the sound of a flushing toilet, on a loop.”
Fortunately there was no such loopiness with Nella’s parakeet, who Garai calls “a real professional”.
“She definitely saw this as her big break and took it very seriously,” the actress quips.
Marin marks another complex role for Garai, who was seen earlier this year as the mother of a serial killer in Channel 4’s Born to Kill.
She was also seen in London’s West End in Queen Anne, which told of the 18th Century monarch’s close relationship with aristocrat Sarah Churchill. (Garai played the Churchill role.)
“You go through many different phases in your career, and in your 30s you start getting character roles,” says the 35-year-old star of Suffragette and The Hour.
“At first you play women whom nothing has happened to, and then you play people who have had a life and have secrets and experiences.
“Normally you have one or two things to play, but with Marin there’s a gamut. She’s very religious yet something of a hypocrite; a force to be reckoned with, yet also deeply afraid.
“There’s a real capacity in this show for people to be different things at different times.”
The Miniaturist will be on BBC One this Christmas on dates yet to be determined. Tulip Fever has yet to have a confirmed UK release date.