'The Miniaturist' Comes To Masterpiece

​Anya Talyor-Joy as Nella (Credit: Courtesy of The Forge/Laurence Cendrowicz for BBC and MASTERPIECE)

​​​​The Miniaturist, Masterpiece's newest series, is a feminist coming of age drama set in the 17th century, based on the international best-selling Jessie Burton novel.

This weekend, Masterpiece debuts part one of the three-hour miniseries The Miniaturist. The series aired on the BBC at Christmas of last year along with the adaptation of Little Women which aired over here in the spring. The series is an adaptation of Burton's 2014 debut novel, which focuses on the life of a young woman named Nella Oortman. Our story begins when 18-year-old Nella (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who grew up in the Danish countryside in the mid-1600s, is forced into marriage for her family's well being. Her new husband, wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell), uproots her to the big city of Amsterdam and moves her in with his family, including his sister, Marin (Romola Garai), and her two housekeepers, Otto (Paapa Essiedu) and Cornelia (Hayley Squires). 

But this is not just your run-of-the-mill period romance. From the moment Nella arrives in her new home, something is very wrong. Marin seems a little too resentful of Nella, Johannes seems a little too obsessed with his sister instead of his new wife, and someone knows what's going on, but isn't telling. Instead, they begin to communicate with Nella using her wedding present: a scale model dollhouse of her new home, which he furnishes with perfect scale miniatures of everyone, and everything, in it.

 

​The dollhouse that inspired Burton's novel actually exists in real life, and is on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. As a set piece for the series to revolve around, said prop is as impressive as the period setting, the costumes, the lighting (or, as is the case of a 17th-century world, lack thereof), and the performances. The time period is exquisitely rendered, with the Calvinist society filled with people who eat their sugar in secret. Nella's beloved parakeet, for instance, is banished to the kitchens downstairs, because it's colors are too bright for such a repressed people. 

Perhaps the only real off note is Nella herself. The series was written only five years ago, and Nella is a surprisingly outspoken and far too feminist teenager of her time period. Moreover, she seems to take the shocks of her household in the stride and open-mindedness of a 21st-century heroine. This is unfortunate, though not surprising. Burton's original novel is well researched (there's a glossary and everything), and seeing the world through Nella's perspective on the page is less jolting than seeing it on the screen. But like the Little Women series it aired alongside last year, it's clear the adaptation felt making Nella more openly modern and open-minded than someone of her age in the time period was the only way a 21st-century audience would accept her.

Still, the mystery is thrilling, and the show is gorgeous to look at, and Taylor-Joy is a fantastic actress who keeps the show humming along, even when her character doesn't quite make sense for her surroundings. The Miniaturist's premiere episode debuts this coming Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, at 9 p.m. on your local PBS station. Check your listings.