Despite immersive design elements and an impressive lead performance by Eve Hewson, the series The Luminaries is too confusing to be entertaining.
The Luminaries is an adaptation of the acclaimed Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name by Eleanor Catton. Catton also wrote the TV series, yet the show bears only a passing resemblance to the book. Given the book stretches to over 800 pages, extreme cuts were bound to be made to make the story fit into the series’ six episodes, but outside of some superficial lip service, the show has also lost much of what made the book intriguing. What’s left is a confusing story that, despite an impressive lead performance by Eve Hewson, is ultimately far more frustrating than entertaining.
The series, which initially aired in Britain and New Zealand last year and will now be available in America on Starz, begins in 1866 in the dark of night. A woman trudges through the woods, a man is shot, two men on horses gallop into the scene; but all of this is so poorly lit it’s hard to make sense of what’s going on. Then, the story flashes back to a few months prior in 1865. Anna Wetherell (Hewson) meets Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) on a ship bound for New Zealand, where both plan to take part in the booming gold rush. There’s a spark between them and they plan to meet that evening, but before Anna can rendezvous with Emery, she runs into Lydia Wells (Eva Green), the duplicitous proprietor of a business that traffics in mysticism and magic, who ensures Anna will not make their meeting.
This proves to be the beginning of Anna’s downfall, as she is thrust into a series of events that lead her into prostitution, drug addiction and a murder accusation. The series jumps between the time before and after this murder, while continuously casting doubt on who is actually dead — and if it’s only one person. Moreover, although the promise of a love story between Emery and Anna is teased from the first episode, after their initial encounter, they don’t see one another again until several episodes later and Emery is absent from a good chunk of the story until then. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of scheming and manipulation by Lydia and her lover, Francis Carver (Marton Csokas), often to the detriment of Lydia’s husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie), that is frequently overly complicated for reasons that are only justified some of the time.
That’s an apt description of the series too. While there’s a lot going on, not all of it matters, although it takes quite a while to realize this because of the tangled way the story is presented. Multiple timelines is a hallmark of many series today, but here the signifiers for both storylines are so similar that it can sometimes take a whole scene to figure out where in the story it falls. Moreover, the plot can feel surprisingly slow, providing more detail than needed or reiterating information that’s already been articulated at many points while rushing past key details at others, making it hard to determine what really matters.
Furthermore, most of the characters are too unpleasant or too ill-defined to make you care about them. Patel does a fine job as Emery, yet doesn’t get enough screen time to fully realize the potential of the character. In many ways, Green seems to be doing a riff on her character from Penny Dreadful, which just makes you miss that superior series. It’s Hewson, really, that manages to hold the show together. She has a magnetic screen presence and she’s wonderful as Anna, playing up her naiveté, heartbreak, determination and resignation as needed, even though the material rarely lives up to her performance.
The book heavily relies on astrology, with characters representing the signs of the zodiac and celestial bodies, such as the sun and the moon (the titular luminaries), but in the series this serves mostly as window dressing. While eventually 12 characters come together and are identified as representing various signs of the zodiac, this isn’t especially meaningful given the limited information we have about most of them. Likewise, early in the series it’s observed that Emery and Anna may be astral twins because they share a birthday, but this soon becomes the completely unsatisfactory excuse for most of the story’s supernatural elements, which seem to pop up because the narrative requires them, not because they’re following a set of predetermined rules.
The most rewarding thing about The Luminaries is its immersive production and costume design, along with the lovely natural New Zealand scenery. This part of the production is often far more interesting than the story itself, which never really comes together convincingly. So while the show’s murder mystery is gussied up with mystical mumbo jumbo and a complicated presentation, these things amount to very little, ultimately resulting in an exasperating and uneven viewing experience.
The Luminaries, starring Eve Hewson, Himesh Patel, Eva Green, Marton Csokas and Ewen Leslie, premieres on Sunday, Feb. 14 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.
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