'The Luminaries': TV Review

The Luminaries-Publicity Still-H 2019
Kirsty Griffin/BBC
Beautifully mounted, but better as meta-commentary than mystery.
2/14/2021

Eleanor Catton adapts her Man Booker Prize-winning novel about love, murder and gold-digging in 19th-century New Zealand as a six-part Starz miniseries.

Critics and audiences alike have grown to distrust TV's lazy reliance on the in medias res opening. You know, the thing where a series or episode starts with an explosive action scene or unexpected character reversal, followed by the title card "48 HOURS EARLIER" and a whole lot of exposition, too often with disappointing returns.

Starz's miniseries adaptation of The Luminaries begins with a doozy of an example: Various people are running through the dark. Somebody gets shot. In the dark. Somebody else maybe gets shot, but when she touches her wound, instead of blood there's gold dust. In the dark. It's a murky muddle that some viewers are going to find utterly infuriating, and even as the six episodes unfold, clarity on the nature of the opening scene is, at best, partial.

Given that Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel was very much a commentary on 19th century novelistic storytelling, it's reasonable to approach Catton's own TV adaptation as a commentary on Peak TV storytelling — specifically its disorienting and disrupting devices and conceits. Viewed in this light, The Luminaries makes for occasionally fascinating viewing, though conventional pleasures prove more elusive.

Basically entirely upending the structure of her novel, Catton and director Claire McCarthy approach The Luminaries primarily as a cosmic love story, albeit one between two characters who have barely any screen time together and no chemistry to speak of. Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) apparently belong together because they share a birthday. They may, in fact, be astral twins, as one character notes. Whatever that means. It's basically the mice singing about how even though they know how very far apart they are, it helps to think they're wishing on the same star in An American Tail.

For practical purposes, they're two passengers on a vessel from Britain bound for the South Island of New Zealand. Emery intends to make a fortune digging for gold. Anna doesn't have nearly as much of a plan. They're both probably running from something in their former lives. They make arrangements to meet on their first evening in New Zealand, but Emery writes where to meet him on a slip of paper and Anna can't read. She almost immediately falls victim to Lydia (Eva Green), a con artist and kind of mystical bordello owner (customers are rooked in with horoscopes, tarot readings and light magic instead of sex). Meanwhile, Emery is getting inveigled by Francis Carver (Marton Csokas), a rakish businessman who is having an affair with Lydia. There are ample complications, and that's before Lydia's husband Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie) stumbles back from the diggings with an astonishing amount of gold.

Warning: One or possibly more of those people may be dead in nine months, according to the opening scene.

Readers of Catton's 800+-page epic may barely recognize the book from that description, but rest assured that the murder mystery that becomes an obsession for 12 male residents of a mining town, each aligned with a sign of the zodiac, hasn't been lost entirely. It's just been pushed deep into the series — the fifth episode in particular — by which time very few of the men in that council have been clearly identified beyond perhaps their jobs and their facial hair. The zodiac connection, meanwhile, is unconvincingly laid out only in voiceover. If I'm giving the opening scene credit as a meta-commentary on a certain kind of contemporary television tendency, I'd point to this as a commentary on adapting prestige literary works for a different medium — an awareness that what works on the page can sometimes play as fundamentally silly or hollow on-screen, yet you have to keep it for fans of the original.

The Luminaries is a tricky show to judge at any given moment. Catton starts the storytelling straight-forwardly, giving us the details around that opening scene and then tracing Emery and Anna's early days in New Zealand as two parallel timelines. Through the first two or three episodes you might even accuse the show of being over-simplified. But then the storytelling begins to fragment and suddenly the murder mystery and love story are being told in four or five different threads — some fueled by the hallucinatory impacts of opium, some infused with shades of Maori superstition, all tainted by a slew of unreliable central characters, any one of whom could be attempting to rewrite their own history.

It all climaxes in a fifth episode so awash in metaphor, gimmick and disorientation that you're either going to welcome it as brilliant in its paradigm-shifting or merely ambitious hokum. Even very much in the latter column, I could still appreciate that Catton was toying with the way serialized TV is designed to elongate stories that could probably be told in 30 minutes. You could say The Luminaries is a near-parody of the convolutions of a show like HBO's The Undoing and I would almost believe you. Taking the show as post-modern experimentation beats trying to follow it as a mystery or invest in it as a romance or — most damning — compare it to Deadwood as a revisionist gold-mining frontier drama.

There are still ways to appreciate The Luminaries that don't require the drafting of a graduate school thesis. Cinematographer Denson Baker, one of many Kiwis in the cast and crew, is having a field day with the ravishing New Zealand vistas, so verdant and mountainous you may expect to see Gandalf peeking out of the forest at any moment. From Edward K. Gibbon's costumes to the re-creation of gritty period outposts, it's a very handsome series.

The performances are mostly terrific — especially Hewson, who succeeds in creating a compelling character out of a woman whose motivations are never completely clear (and who spends nearly three straight episodes in a laudanum trance). After this and The Knick, one might wonder at Hewson's gravitation toward on-screen opiates. She also somewhat sells the romance even though Patel is completely forgettable in a largely underwritten role.

It's always a joy watching Green play this sort of master manipulator; few actors convey being several steps ahead of everybody else on-screen as vividly. Plus, she gets to perform a seance that plays like an homage to her role in Penny Dreadful, a harrowing turn that should have won her at least one Emmy. And she brings out some depth in Csokas, prone to hammy villains but occasionally sympathetic here.

Ewen Leslie stands out in a sea of scruffy character actors boasting a melting pot of entertainingly discordant accents, while Richard Te Are, Yonson An and Gary Young offer tantalizing hints of a version of this story in which the experiences of Maori natives and Chinese immigrants were more central.

You'll likely need to latch onto some of these performances and technical achievements, because The Luminaries is the sort of adaptation that may perplex audiences who haven't read the book and readers looking for fidelity to the book equally.

Cast: Eve Hewson, Eva Green, Himesh Patel, Ewen Leslie, Marton Csokas, Benedict Hardie, Erik Thomson, Richard Te Are

Creator: Eleanor Catton from her novel

Director: Claire McCarthy

Episodes air Sundays at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on Starz starting February 14.