Starz’s sweeping historical drama is a treat for the eyes, but doesn’t have much going on beyond that.
Part melodrama, part gold rush adventure story, part soulmate fable, and part astrology app come to life, The Luminaries, Starz’s 6-episode adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 novel, is much like the gold its characters seek: shiny, ephemeral, and ultimately cold. Adapted by Catton and directed by Claire McCarthy, The Luminaries wastes no time in unfurling several plot points in media res, with dramatic but confusing results.
In 1866 New Zealand, a young woman, gold spilling from the seams of her garish dress, wanders along through an undefined wilderness while a young man is shot; another man is found dead in his remote cabin and no one seems to know who he is or why anyone would murder him. After being discovered unconscious at the crime scene, Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson), the aforementioned young woman, is arrested for opium use, prostitution, and attempted suicide.
One year prior, starry-eyed would-be prospector Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) meets winsome adventuress Anna on their last day aboard ship before arriving in Dunedin, New Zealand. The two make an instant connection and plan to meet for dinner at Staines’ hotel, but Anna, robbed and led astray by glamorous fortune teller/professional party planner Lydia Wells (Eva Green), misses the date. Lydia, all long red hair and easy sympathy, takes Anna under her wing as her “apprentice,” teaching her how the movements of the planets affect our lives and how to charm the local male populace out of their cash with parlor games, seances, and smiles. Lydia is working on an elaborate scheme with her lover, ex-convict Francis Carver (Martin Csokas), one that is hastily rearranged when her prospector husband Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie) returns from the goldfields with a fortune in tow.
The story shifts between 1865 and 1866, revealing bits of the overarching mystery (who killed Crosbie Wells?) as Lydia and Francis’ plots come to a head, Anna descends into opium addiction, and Emery, believing Anna to be dead or to have deceived him, enters into an uneasy partnership with Francis and an easier friendship with Crosbie and Richard Te Are (Te Rau Tauwhare). In the present, an overzealous lawman (Callan Mulvey) tries to pin Crosbie’s murder on Anna, even as various locals and a newly arrived politician (Benedict Hardie) uncover further mysteries and a large quantity of gold to which no one can put a provenance.
Emery and Anna are eventually reunited, something that is inevitable we’re told, because the pair are “astral twins,” two people born at the exact same moment. As Lydia explains in a lengthy voiceover, each of the twelve men attempting to solve Crosbie’s murder represents a sign of the Zodiac, while others represent various other heavenly bodies. Anna and Emery are the Sun and the Moon. Did that appear to come out of nowhere? That’s fair, as it also appears out of nowhere in the narrative, when side characters are suddenly laden with heavy import, despite not affecting the story up to that point (and continuing not to do so).
The Luminaries…is much like the gold its characters seek: shiny, ephemeral, and ultimately cold
By the final episodes, when the plots have coalesced into a supernaturally-tinged courtroom drama, The Luminaries loses track of its many characters and their motivations, resulting in a hard-to-follow and unsatisfactory climax. There’s an eleventh-hour secret reveal that is probably successfully foreshadowed in a novel, but appears whole cloth out of the air in the series. It’s less of a wow moment than it is a “huh”. Unfortunately, that’s rather the feeling of the series as a whole. Beautiful to look at (though incredibly dark in many of the indoor shots, so much so that at times it’s hard to follow what’s happening), The Luminaries plays with being a realistic historical look at New Zealand’s West Coast Gold Rush. When local clerk Aubert Gascoigne (Paolo Rotondo) offers Anna one of his late wife’s dresses to wear, he notes that she wore black to cover the blood from her consumption; the Chinese population of the town is treated with rank prejudice, as is Richard Te Are (the story’s sole Māori character). That being said, the supernatural elements appear at times to have wandered in from another story.
Hewson and Patel make for a lovely pair of star-crossed lovers, but it’s Hewson that carries the bulk of the story upon her shoulders, literal light going slowly out of her eyes. Green is solid as ever, but coasts at times upon a “this is an Eva Green performance;” by the time Lydia decides to perform a seance, it’s almost expected, since that’s what an Eva Green character would do. The too-brief scenes of Patel, Leslie, and Tauwhare as a sort of frontier boys’ club are charming and gone too soon, it leaves the viewer wishing the story could circle away from Anna’s unyielding traumas and spend more time at the river with them. All told, The Luminaries is a beautifully acted, good-looking, and unfortunately forgettable adventure.
The Luminaries premieres on Starz February 14th.