There's no doubt that Stephen Poliakoff's "Shooting the Past," presented in two 90-minute installments under PBS' "Masterpiece Theater" banner, exerts a powerful pull. The story of a magnificent picture archive's putative death throes, Poliakoff's atmospheric drama contains plenty of elements to keep viewers intrigued. But a heavy blanket of mannerisms sometimes smothers the inherent drama here; while eminently watchable, this two-parter also proves annoying.

There’s no doubt that Stephen Poliakoff’s “Shooting the Past,” presented in two 90-minute installments under PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater” banner, exerts a powerful pull. The story of a magnificent picture archive’s putative death throes, Poliakoff’s atmospheric drama contains plenty of elements to keep viewers intrigued. But a heavy blanket of mannerisms sometimes smothers the inherent drama here; while eminently watchable, this two-parter also proves annoying.

Ostensibly the story of a tug-of-war between old and new, England and America, “Shooting the Past” centers on the Fallon Photo Library, one of those musty-dusty obscure Brit institutions housing great treasures. There are no computers on the premises — a large converted mansion, natch — and a cook prepares multicourse lunches for the staff.

The library is run by the capable but largely naive Marilyn Truman (Lindsay Duncan). But the real heart of the place is Oswald Bates (Timothy Spall), an exceptionally eccentric and combative, but brilliant, archivist. The meek Veronica (Billie Whitelaw), adventurous Spig (Emilia Fox) and taciturn Nick (Blake Ritson) round out the crew.

Into this arcane world steps Christopher Anderson (Liam Cunningham), who has purchased the property with the intention of converting it into a business school for the 21st century. As for the picture collection, well, no need for that anymore.

But Anderson is unprepared for the Fallon staff’s unbending will, and he is slowly moved by their plight to find a new home for the photos. This slim plotline, however, is really a cover for “Shooting the Past’s” real purpose: an examination of photography’s mysterious hold on our imagination, its penchant for possibilities.

In two extraordinary sequences, Marilyn attempts to convince Christopher of the medium’s unique storytelling abilities. And it is here, everything else that’s good about this show notwithstanding, that “Shooting the Past” evolves into must-see TV. In the first tale, the plight of a Berlin-born Jewish girl is chronicled with surprising results; in the second, Christopher’s own grandmother is the protagonist.

Duncan gives a good, sympathetic perf as Marilyn, but it’s the excellent Spall (so memorable in films by Mike Leigh and others) who dominates the action. By turns antagonistic and heroic, Oswald is this program’s most complex character. The rest of the cast does fine in relatively dry and flat roles, save Cunningham, who proves quite bad as Christopher, offering a lame American accent and stiff gestures. (Arj Barker, as Christopher’s assistant, impressively demonstrates how such parts ought to be played.)

Bruno de Keyzer and Ernie Vincze’s lensing gets the library’s ambiance just right, but it’s the many photographs on display, all borrowed from the outstanding Hulton Getty Picture Collection, that will garner the most interest.

Shooting the Past

PBS; Sun. Nov. 21 & 28, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in England by Talkback Prods. and presented on PBS by WGBH Boston. Executive producers, Simon Curtis, Peter Fincham; producer, John Chapman; director, Stephen Poliakoff; writer, Poliakoff; production design, John-Paul Kelly.

Crew

Camera, Bruno De Keyzer and Ernie Vincze; editor, Paul Tothill; sound, Richard Manton; music, Adrian Johnston. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Marilyn Truman - Lindsay Duncan Oswald Bates - Timothy Spall Christopher Anderson - Liam Cunningham Veronica - Billie Whitelaw Spig - Emilia Fox Garnett - Arj Barker Nick - Blake Ritson
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