If you watched “Sharp Objects,” you may well be triggered by the sight of a dollhouse. But don’t let that stop you from trying the new PBS “Masterpiece” miniseries “The Miniaturist,” which prominently features an elaborately detailed dollhouse filled with finely designed objects and tiny furniture. The three-part period piece has some weaknesses in the final chapter, but it is nonetheless an intriguing story led by a trio of stellar performances.
Oh, and it’s completely gorgeous. Set in 17th-century Amsterdam, in a large house on the canal, “The Miniaturist” has been designed to look like a series of Vermeer paintings. A hundred times in the premiere, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on WGBH 2, I wanted to freeze the action to admire the depth of the carefully lit shots, the strategic use of colorful silk dresses against gray and brown backgrounds, and the broad checkered marble floors. If it weren’t for the physical privations, not to mention the primitive morality of the time, which forms the thematic core of the miniseries, I would definitely want to go there.
“The Miniaturist,” adapted from Jessie Burton’s 2014 novel, begins as small-town 18-year-old Nella Oortman (Anya Taylor-Joy) arrives at the home of her wealthy new husband. She has essentially been sold to him, to keep her mother and siblings out of the poor house, and she has only seen him once. Alas, Johannes (Alex Hassell) is away, as is his wont, and she is met instead by his cold, surly sister, Marin (Romola Garai), who is openly hostile to Johannes’s marriage. She’s like Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca,” bullying the newcomer and, due to her religious asceticism, looking down her nose at Nella’s childlike love of sweets. The difficult question hovering in the air: Does Marin despise Nella because she and her brother are having an incestuous affair?
I’m not going to spoil anything here; the show takes a few dramatic turns that push Nella into an awakening of sorts. Throughout, as her husband all but ignores her, she takes refuge in the dollhouse he has given her as a wedding gift after they met — a replica of the house they live in. At first, she orders a few custom-made artifacts for the dollhouse from a skilled miniaturist in town. Soon, though, the miniaturist, whose identity is unknown, begins to send on objects that Nella hasn’t ordered, objects that predict events that will take place in the house. The tone of “The Miniaturist” is menacing, though never reaching horror-movie intensity, as Nella becomes desperate to find out who is making these items and how that person knows so much.
I found the resolution of the miniaturist mystery unsatisfying, and a few other plot twists strained credulity. But I never tired of watching the leads, each of them dynamic. Taylor-Joy has a young face, but she easily radiates maturity and wisdom as her story develops. She is a damsel in distress, until she definitely isn’t. Hassell brings dignity to a character we don’t often find in period pieces. And Garai is, as usual, impressive. Marin could easily be merely a ghoulish enemy, but Garai, in just the right increments, brings depth and poignancy. The show is about a few small minds, and one small home, but the acting is consistently formidable.
MASTERPIECE: THE MINIATURIST
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Alex Hassell, Romola Garai, Hayley Squires, Ziggy Heath
On: WGBH 2
Sunday night, 9-10