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‘The Miniaturist’ Review: PBS’ Dollhouse Drama Is a Haunting and Exquisitely Crafted Surprise

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as a new bride who receives a lavish wedding gift that appears to predict the future.

Anya Taylor-Joy, "The Miniaturist"

Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Miniaturist”

The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowi

Two weeks after HBO’s Southern gothic thriller “Sharp Objects” revealed its twisted ending, another drama featuring a dollhouse is opening its doors to welcome viewers into a meticulously crafted world. “The Miniaturist,” based on Jessie Burton’s novel of the same name, is PBS’ three-part adaptation that satisfies the “Masterpiece” aesthete’s hunger for beautiful visuals, lavish costuming, and mesmerizing performances.

Set in the 17th century, “The Miniaturist” follows Petronella “Nella” Oortman (“The Witch” and “Split” star Anya Taylor-Joy), a wide-eyed 18-year-old from Assendelft, who has traveled to Amsterdam to join the household of her new husband, Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell). On the surface, it appears to be the usual sort of marriage contract: She and her family benefit from his wealth and status, while he receives a youthful bride to help continue the Brandt line and look pretty while doing it. The latter, in fact, appears to be the main goal because he spares no expense in enrobing her in the most sumptuous fabrics and gowns, putting her on display for a society that is caught up in appearances.

Nella’s entrance into the home is reminiscent of the narrator’s in “Rebecca.” She’s met by servants Cornelia and Otto (Hayley Squires, Paapa Essiedu) and with a Mrs. Danvers-esque antagonism from Johannes’ devout sister Marin (Romola Garai), who continues to run their household even upon Nella’s arrival. Despite Johannes’ spendthrift nature, Marin is tight with the purse-strings and even more ascetic when it comes to everyday essentials such as food. When Nella requests marzipan or some other sweet, she’s told, “We do not keep sugar in the house. The luxury of it sickens the soul. Cornelia will bring you a herring.”

"The Miniaturist"

“The Miniaturist”

The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowi

The ridiculousness of that line is representative of how “The Miniaturist” can be low-key hilarious. The series is too aware of its political and socially conscious themes to be an overt laugh-fest, but there’s plenty of wordplay to tickle the brain, and Garai is gleefully grim and forbidding. As Marin, she delivers passive-aggressive, “Mean Girls”-worthy lines that should be taken for the Dutch Golden Age bitchiness that it is. This humor adds to the delight of the first two installments that also dazzle with visual wonders.

And wondrous it is. Beyond Nella’s attention-grabbing garb courtesy of costume designer Joana Eatwell, “The Miniaturist” makes every scene and every frame count, especially in the Brandt home. Director Guillem Morales and cinematographer Gavin Finney appear to pay tribute to Vermeer, the Dutch painter who elevated the domestic space in his use of rich pigments and the striking depiction of light and shadow. Every moment feels deliberately crafted for the maximum dramatic effect, whether it’s the balance of characters in the foreground and background, having the camera glide through multiple doorways, or seamlessly shifting from the present time to flashback in one camera motion in order to connect the drift of Nella’s thoughts.

The care given to the action in the Brandts’ house mirrors the attention lavished on Nella’s extravagant bridal gift. Perhaps to make up for his frequent absences, Johannes gives his wife the ultimate in conspicuous consumption for that time: a cabinet house, aka a dollhouse, that is a replica of their own nine-room home, which Nella starts to furnish, having nothing else to do with her time while Johannes is off doing business. There’s something almost creepy, however, about the items that arrive from the local miniaturist. Exquisitely made, the little chairs and dishes are eerily identical to what’s inside the household, and certain items are detailed in such a way that appears to predict or even influence events that become increasingly fraught. Even more baffling is that most of these items weren’t even commissioned by Nella, who as a newcomer to the household is learning secrets through these objects.

Whether or not something mystical or sinister is afoot is part of the spooky fun of “The Miniaturist,” but as with “Sharp Objects,” the use of the dollhouse here serves to reflect and magnify the often-masked parts of human nature. Manipulating these everyday items on a small scale juxtaposed with the harsh realities of how people treat each other only serves to amplify the monstrous nature of what is happening, both inside the house and out in the city. The uncanny dollhouse items and the identity of the miniaturist behind them are just the underlying mysteries to the greater ones in the story. Unless one has read Burton’s book, some of the biggest revelations in the series are genuinely surprising because it takes advantage of our expectations and subverts them.

"The Miniaturist"

“The Miniaturist”

The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowi

Unfortunately, as with a child playing with dolls, no number of expensive toys can replace a proper imagination for storytelling. The series falters in its third act because it hasn’t provided enough development for its characters. The groundwork has been set — the dolls have been clothed and put in place — but their interactions with each other, their emotional connections that are essential to being tested, rarely feel earned. And thus, when tragedy inevitably strikes, it is with less force and poignancy than it should have. Taylor-Joy and Hassell join Garai in delivering as much nuance and pathos to their roles that it’s apparent the lack is not in their performances but in the storytelling. It’s as if an episode has gone missing.

Nevertheless, “The Miniaturist” is still worth watching, even beyond its visual pleasures. Despite Amsterdam thriving during this time, the series examines life in that society from the point of view of the misfits and marginalized. Defiance and bravery are necessary to face the ugliness that is presented, and it’s a theme echoed in the characters’ actions. “The Miniaturist” may feel raw and green, sometimes naively so, but in its awkward, otherworldly way champions hope and change, and that’s rarely a waste of time.

Grade: B

“The Miniaturist” premieres the first of its three weekly installments on Sunday, Sept. 9 at 9 p.m. ET as part of PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

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