NEW YORK (CNS) — In its close to 50 years on the air, PBS’ venerable anthology series “Masterpiece” has featured numerous iconic shows, including “Downton Abbey,” “Prime Suspect” and “Sherlock.” The durable and outstanding quality of productions such as these, moreover, has garnered “Masterpiece” 86 Emmy awards.
Even a franchise with this long and admirable track record, however, can occasionally misfire. Great looking but ultimately disappointing, “The Miniaturist,” which debuts Sunday, Sept. 9, 9‚Äì10 p.m. EDT, is a case in point. The three-part miniseries continues Sunday, Sept. 16, and concludes Sunday, Sept. 23, 9-10 p.m. EDT each night.
Screenwriter John Brownlow adapted “The Miniaturist” from British actress Jessie Burton’s eponymous 2014 debut novel, which has sold more than a million copies in 37 countries.
As the series opens in the year 1686, 18-year-old Nella Oortman (Anya Taylor-Joy) arrives in Amsterdam from her rural hometown, Assendelft, to become the bride of prosperous local merchant Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell). Nella’s marriage has been arranged to save her once-prosperous, and still aristocratic, family from financial ruin.
But when Nella reaches her new home, Johannes is away on business, and his domineering sister, Marin (Romola Garai), receives Nella chillingly. “All of Amsterdam,” Marin reminds Nella, “must see Johannes Brandt has a new wife.”
The overtly pious Marin reflects the attitudes of the prosperous city’s elders, while zealously protecting her brother’s reputation among the respectable elite. When Johannes returns to the household, he’s friendly to his new bride, but rejects her attempts at intimacy, confusing and frustrating Nella.
Yet his gift of a miniature doll house, a replica of the home they share, inspires Nella to warm to her enigmatic husband.
She employs a miniaturist (Emily Berrington), who sends the young wife figurines of household members and accompanying notes. These portend, with uncanny accuracy, the troubled fates awaiting the family and their household servants, Cornelia (Hayley Squires) and Otto (Paapa Essiedu).
Secrets and layers of deception, as viewers will reasonably anticipate, are at the core of what goes wrong in the household. Marin’s sexual behavior, shocking for its day, reveals her to be anything but the morally upright woman she would like to appear. And, Johannes, for his part, faces the town’s censure for acts that were then considered not only scandalous but criminal.
Even many adults may be turned off by the show’s strong sexual content, some of it involving violence and much of it sinful. The program’s treatment of homosexuality, in particular, calls for careful discernment.
Catholic viewers will obviously not want to identify with the hysterical condemnation that marked 17th-century attitudes toward such actions. But they will need to be well-grounded in the church’s teaching in order not to give in to the undiscriminating acceptance that lies at the other end of the spectrum and that pervades our society.
Visually, at least, “The Miniaturist” measures up to the high expectations for a “Masterpiece” production. Striking in themselves, the Netherlands locales are enhanced by Gavin Finney’s elegant cinematography. The set designs and period costumes are also spot on. In fact, the characters appear to have leapt to life from a painting by Dutch master artist (and Catholic convert) Johannes Vermeer.
Despite what’s laudable about “The Miniaturist,” however, director Guillem Morales’ staging emphasizes the narrative’s melodrama to the series’ detriment, so much so that the action eventually becomes implausible.
The filmmakers, moreover, try to turn “The Miniaturist” into a parable about right-wing intolerance in our own day. However, the repeated gasps and murmurs of the gallery spectators during the climatic courtroom scene devolve into self-parody, rendering the supposed analogy ham-fisted and absurd.
Like the great Roger Federer having an off day — and losing to a player ranked 55th in the world — this overwrought program demonstrates that even “Masterpiece” isn’t always on its game.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.