Review: Magic and period drama meet in Masterpiece’s ‘The Miniaturist’

Paapa Essiedu, from left, Hayley Squires, Anya Taylor-Joy, Alex Hassell and Romola Gara in Masterpiece's €"The Miniaturist.€"
Paapa Essiedu, from left, Hayley Squires, Anya Taylor-Joy, Alex Hassell and Romola Gara in Masterpiece’s €"The Miniaturist.€"
(Laurence Cendrowicz / Forge/BBC)
Television Critic

Lush period drama and the supernatural meet in Masterpiece’s “The Miniaturist” when a teen bride in 17th century Holland is given the power to change her fate — and the fates of those around her.

The three-part series, which premieres Sunday on PBS, is another beautifully staged and expertly acted offering from a franchise that specializes in such rich, velvety fare. But this British series, which is adapted from Jessie Burton’s novel of the same name, deviates from other period productions by giving its trapped female protagonist a way out of her predicament through the perceived power of magic.

As weird as that sounds, the colorful splendor of the Netherlands’ golden age mixed with a modern fascination of dark arts (or at least science fiction) makes “The Miniaturist” an engaging and suspenseful series.

It’s 1686 and country girl Petronella Oortman (Anya Taylor-Joy) agrees to marry rich and powerful Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell) in order to pay off her family’s debts. The scared young woman has never met her future husband, and he’s nowhere to be found when she first arrives to a cold household ruled by Johannes’ overbearing and pious sister-in-law Marin (Romola Garai).


When Marin shows Nella (Petronella’s nickname) to her new room, which overlooks a lively, bustling thoroughfare along the river, she says, “This used to be my room, but it had the better view, so he gave it to you.”

You must take it back, insists Nella.

“You misunderstand,” says Marin. “The view is of you. Amsterdam must see that Johannes Brandt has a new wife.”

But why?!

Mystery abounds, and even the help — maid Cornelia (Hayley Squires) and butler Otto (Paapa Essiedu), are fierce protectors of their masters’ secrets. They and Marin watch the new lady of the house carefully, making sure she never leaves without them.

Things look grim until Nella finally meets her groom to be, and he appears to be a kind, handsome and charming gentleman. He could have had anyone, so why her? He hasn’t much time for conversation, or anything else with her for that matter, but presents her with a wedding gift before running off to one of his “business meetings.”

The gifted dollhouse replicates Nella’s new home. It’s to be furnished by a miniaturist whose trade is creating the tiny wooden furnishings and inhabitants for dollhouses. Nella never meets the elusive craftsman in person. Instead, she sends requests for items, and they’re sent to her home, along with curious additions that she didn’t ask for.

She’s spooked, then enthralled as she realizes that the tiny creations are mirroring what’s happening in the household. She unwraps a package to find a tiny chair inside that’s an exact replica of the chair she’s sitting in. Or there’s the painstakingly crafted armoire with a secret drawer and keys inside. She finds its real-life inspiration in a back room of the sprawling townhome.

Now the powerless teen bride has the potential to control everyone’s future- or does she?

Secrets unfurl at a rapid pace here, and they often lead to deeper mysteries. “The Miniaturist” will keep you hooked, and guessing, piece by beautifully handcrafted piece.