Starz Spins Acclaimed Bestseller ‘The Luminaries’ Into a Visually Enticing Journey
Starz’s “The Luminaries” is a six-part adaptation of an award-winning bestseller set to air in weekly installments. But it weaves and breaks apart every element of its narrative with each new installment that only the real devotee to the story will keep going until the end. The source material was a shoe-in for any producer. Eleanor Catton’s 2013 novel is both a bestseller and winner of the Man Booker Prize. Fans of the novel will be delighted to know Catton has also penned the limited series. For those who stick around for the entire haul, it is a handsome production, with soft cinematography and notable cast.
Recapping the plot of “The Luminaries” fully would require a separate article for multiple sections. This is because the show is designed as a fractured vision where you’re bombarded by moments from various places in the plot’s timeline. However the beginning is simple enough. It’s 1866 in New Zealand, which is prime territory for tragic romance. Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) is on a steamer headed for Dunedin, which is undergoing a gold rush. Along the way she meets Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), who hopes to find destiny and fortune. They click, among other things because they share the same birthday. Anna agrees to meet Emery again at a designated hotel in Dunedin once they’ve settled in. Cruel fate intervenes when they both meet hucksters and schemers who keep them apart. Anna comes into the orbit of Lydia Wells (Eva Green), who runs a bordello based on readings of the Zodiac. Wells purposefully makes sure Anna misses her date with Emery, who himself gets lured in by a scheming businessman named Francis Carver (Marton Csokas). Carver is actually having an affair with Wells, and their ambitions get sinister when Wells’ own husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie), shows up with lots of gold. Fast forward nine months to Anna being branded a thief and prostitute while ostracized by society.
This was the straight-forward summation of the story. “The Luminaries” zig-zags from the sections where Anna is shamed and disheveled to her early days in New Zealand, when she’s coming under the sway of Wells. It’s a bold move because the flow is dominated entirely by bits and clues. As a limited series the story also turns into a Peak TV version of “Cold Mountain,” where the two would-be lovers are introduced at the beginning, only to be kept separated for the rest of the journey. Catton deserves kudos for chopping down her 800-page opus into six hours of television, not an easy feat in any format as those who ventured into cinemas two years ago for “The Goldfinch” can report. How well she fared depends on your familiarity or devotion to the book. The central idea of the Zodiac and 12 characters each representing a sign has been pushed into the background, with Wells becoming the main representative of the idea. She instructs Anna in the ways of astrology and spins a lot of mystical cosmic chatter about signs and their meanings.
Yet the stars are not really guiding the plot here, but the usual historical drama motivations of avarice and betrayal. Once Wells and Carver know about Crosbie’s gold, they have murder in their eyes. Anna’s moments nine months later are about her trying to figure out what happened involving the gold and the scheming. Is she a killer? How did she become addicted to opium? Little details help fuel the mystery with convincing effect, like Anna being easy to manipulate by Wells because she can’t read (so Wells can conveniently give her the opposite of whatever Emery wrote to her in a note). There’s druggy intrigue involving opium as the era’s narcotic of choice, and Anna has some hallucinatory moments enhanced by scenes involving Wells and her mystical get-togethers at the bordello. Elements of Maori and Chinese immigrant culture are also explored through other characters woefully underused.
As Peak TV “The Luminaries,” which first aired on the BBC in 2020, is gorgeously envisioned. Claire McCarthy, who directed an underrated feminist take on Shakespeare, “Ophelia,” frames the show with baroque imagery, taking advantage of the green New Zealand landscapes. There’s also grit and atmosphere in every scene. And while Himesh Pitel delivers another strong performance, there’s little doubt the show is carried by Eve Hewson and Eva Green. Hewson brings the vulnerability mixed with determination the role requires. There’s a particular seriousness that comes across in her demeanor that gets shaken by coming into contact with Wells’ world. Hewson plays innocent well, just notice the moments where she catches Wells in a tryst with her lover in a hallway. Green is of course an experienced master who flawlessly becomes the darkly seductive Wells, at first charming Anna with her welcome demeanor before revealing a malevolent side.
Viewers who venture into “The Luminaries” will either be easily taken in by its visual style or walk away from its maze. It almost helps if you haven’t absorbed the book fully because the series almost stands apart from it. Instead of going for the grand, mystical and historical sweep of the text, this adaptation reduces the narrative to its key elements: Anna’s vanished memory of what happened, lost in a haze of opium, and our own wish to see her reunited with Emery. The book was such a mammoth undertaking it was inevitable subtext would go out the window. Even the 19th century gold rush theme gets less time than the basic plot. It’s all skillfully done, but may be an acquired taste.
“The Luminaries” premieres Feb. 14 and airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. ET on Starz.