At first glance, PBS’s The Miniaturist is a show that might be easy to dismiss. It takes place in 17th century Amsterdam, where the colors are (for the most part) particularly muted. It looks quiet, staid, buttoned-up. Its title refers to the maker of tiny items to go in doll houses. How riveting could that be? Very much so, actually. Mostly because the miniaturist of the title is not someone we meet until the end of the three-episode series, although their creations seem to be driving the story.
The Miniaturist follows a beautiful but poor girl (isn’t that always the way?) Petronella a..k.a. Nella Oortman (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who has married a handsome, charming, and fabulously wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell) as a way to save her family from poverty. They know almost nothing about each other, and as Nella mentions several times, Johannes essentially owns her, as her mother sold her to a man who couldn’t otherwise find a wife. And with so much to recommend him, why not?
From the start, The Miniaturist hits us with unexpected humor as well as spooky overtones, neither of which are necessarily expected in such a costumed production. The editing is quick and the story is well-paced (for the most part), allowing for quirky introductions and snappy though frugal dialogue. In a whirlwind, Nella is shipped off to Amsterdam to live with Johannes, who doesn’t seem to have much of an interest in her, and she is greeted instead by his cold and pious sister Marin (Romola Garai). Despite their supposed wealth, the Brandt’s household is small, and includes a maid Cornelia (Hayley Squires) and a butler-of-sorts, Otto (Paapa Essiedu). Cornelia and Otto welcome Nella far more so than the siblings, and yet, never let her out of their sight (or out of the house alone). It lends a claustrophobic feeling to the proceedings, which is augmented when Johannes presents his new bride with an unusual wedding gift: a giant dollhouse replica of their home, which she is to furnish from a local miniaturist.
Though Nella is initially a little frightened of the piece, which looms in her room (that she does not share with Johannes — it’s clear from the start that something is not typical with him and his household), she soon embraces the idea of having small items added to the rooms. Yet soon she starts receiving packages for items she didn’t order, ones that seem to predict what will happen within the house, with increasingly violent results.
The Miniaturist is not a horror series, though it can often feel like one. There are jump-scares and some spooky moments, as well as a few well-placed dramatic reveals. For those hoping that there is a supernatural angle at play, don’t get your hopes up too high — the series posits many questions and only answers a few (mostly in its third hour, which drags somewhat). And yet, there is something very unique about The Miniaturist’s story and the way its presented, not the least of which are its Vermeer-esque aesthetics. The relationship between Nella and Johannes is also not traditional, and with more time the show could have explored their dynamic with more depth. But as it is, things move along so swiftly that by the end (after running only a little longer than a feature film), it’s a shock to realize you were engrossed by a series whose whole premise rested almost entirely on the selling of sugar.
There are a few really interesting storylines broached casually in the series that would have benefitted from more episodes, including Otto (who is black) and his experiences in Amsterdam after being saved from a Portuguese slave ship, and the escalation of “purity” raids on homes by the military who are controlled by a ruling religious body. There’s also Nella’s emotional journey from naive farm girl to a woman running a merchant’s city estate, but perhaps it’s best that The Miniaturist leaves us wanting more than the other way around, especially given the uneven finale. Ultimately, like the dollhouse the seems to rule their lives, the series is a window into another world that is dazzling, strange, and somewhat inscrutable.
The Miniaturist premieres Sunday, September 9th on PBS, and will be available on Digital HD September 10th, DVD and Blu-ray September 18th.