A solid edition of the PBS “Masterpiece” lineup tends to indulge some combination of the following: a plucky heroine, a secretly soft hero, a compelling romance and/or mystery, and a lush period backdrop to set it all off. “The Miniaturist” — based on Jessie Burton’s 2014 novel — technically works well as the latest entry, traveling back to 1686 Amsterdam for a tale laced with secrecy, intrigue, and even a hint of supernatural subterfuge. It features a determined heroine in teen bride Nella (Anna Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), sent to live in a new home with a rich and broody new husband Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell), his wary sister Marin (Romola Garai), and a pair of servants — surly Cornelia (Hayley Squires) and loyal Otto (Paapa Essiedu) — who know much more about all of the above than they initially let on.
But things only start to take off once Johannes gifts Nella with a dollhouse modeled after her new home, and the miniaturist she commissions to outfit it with a few accessories instead produces startlingly accurate facsimiles of everything from their furniture to themselves. As Nella starts to uncover more about the unsettling family she’s become part of, she becomes more obsessed with the miniaturist’s creations — especially as the miniaturist appears to become more obsessed with Nella’s life, too.
“The Miniaturist” does take a couple notable detours from the typical “Masterpiece” script. The reality of Otto’s life as a black man in determinedly white Amsterdam, for instance, isn’t glossed over (though his overall characterization as an individual is). And without spoiling anything, the growing power of Amsterdam’s Puritans and their increasingly rigid ideals collide with the Brandt household’s veiled secrets in swift, startling fashion.
In theory, all these stories should be more than enough to fill three hourlong episodes. Somehow, though, the miniseries feels both overlong and stunted as it lurches between storylines. The miniaturist, Nella and Johannes’ marriage, and Marin’s jeopardized place within the house all take turns as the main focus, giving none of the threads enough consideration to find a real groove of their own. Adding to the confusion is that the cast seems split between two very different tones. Joy and Essiedu’s (better) performances opt for quiet intensity with flashes of passion. Hampered in part by thinly scripted characterizations, Hassell, Squires, and Garai’s are composites of many similar characters from period pieces past. Garai in particular gives a strange performance, as Marin monotones her way through lesser versions of Jessica Chastain’s arch and meaty “Crimson Peak” monologues.
It’s a shame that the series never quite gels, given how much it has going for it in terms of story, talent, and the truly spectacular production design and costuming that sets off the on location shoots with such style. But just like the dollhouse at its center, “The Miniaturist” is better at housing facsimiles rather than characters that feel real.
Limited series, PBS; 3 episodes all watched for review. Premieres Sun. Sept 9 at 9 pm.
Cast: Anna Taylor-Joy, Romola Garai, Alex Hassell, Paapa Essiedu, Hayley Squires, Emily Berrington.
Crew: Executive producers: Kate Sinclair, George Faber, Elizabeth Kilgarriff, Rebecca Eaton.