But whereas Lee bathes his fiction in
uncomfortable facts, writer Eleanor Catton (adapting her own book) and director
Claire McCarthy (Ophelia) plunge into frustrating superstition with uncomfortable
Luminaries pulses with
astrological influence. The characters are pushed by shapely constellations
and planetary orbits, which only feel intrusive to an already interesting
premise. But the mysticism, ultimately, doesn’t bring this series down – the big issue
is: it’s galactically confusing.
Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) with Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) Credit: BBC/The Luminaries Production Ltd 2018
1866, and there’s been a murder near Dunedin on the South Island. The sex
worker Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) is arrested, but has no memory of why she was
there at the scene of the crime. The harsh and prejudicial Gaoler George
Shepard (Callan Mulvey), wielding a villainous ’tache, attempts to discipher
Continuously hopping between the present and nine months in the past, the series unravels the story of Anna and the aspiring
prospector Emery Staines (Himesh Patel). They both arrive into Dunedin by boat,
aspiring to make new lives for themselves from the new wealth of the country.
doorstop of a novel bursts with characters and allows them to breathe in 850 pages
of space. But in the series, most of them suffocate – struggling for any breath of
dialogue. Only the main players are given adequate entrances: the optimistic
Anna, the romantic Emery, the gruff ex-con Francis Carver (Marton Csokas), the
spiritually deceptive Lydia Wells (Eva Green) and her drunken but ambitious
husband Crosbie (Ewen Leslie).
The rest drift in and out, their distinctive names
(‘Dick Mannering’, ‘Walter Moody’, ‘Alistair Lauderback’) thankfully fixing in
the mind as much as their unique appearances. Although there are just too many players
to deal with, further confusing the impenetrable plot, they are memorable at least. Catton
and McCarthy have Dickensian talents in painting characters.
Lydia Wells (Eva Green) showing Anna her astrology chart. Credit: BBC/The Luminaries Production Ltd 2018/Kirsty Griffin
plot soon squirms into a befuddling vortex of overflowing turns and magical
resolutions. As such, the series devolves from an intriguing idea – a
murder-mystery set in a conservative, greedy world scrabbling for gold – into a
show that resembles a lamentably basic supernatural drama.
Prepare to hear
nauseating phrases like ‘séance’, ‘astral twin’ and ‘cosmic fingerprint’ as
well as heavy descriptions of orbital placements. Happily, their witchy dictator Lydia Wells has a dark and intriguing presence as the proprietor of the
House of Many Wishes, hosting many surreal parties and revelling as the show’s
holistically deceptive nemesis.
relationship between Anna and Emery, despite being predicated on nonsense, also
has a certain appealing chemistry – especially as both keep missing each other and fall into exhaustively difficult situations. Their journeys
lead them to Hokitika, where so much gold is waiting to be plundered. But as they
wade deeper into overloaded fantasy, the series adopts a spiritual silliness
that’s impossible to take seriously.
Despite having the traits of a revisionist
Western, resembling Robert Altman’s muddy, opium-scented drama McCabe and
Mrs. Miller, The Luminaries is an endless maze with a disappointing,
The Luminaries airs on Sunday 21 June at 9pm on BBC One
|What||The Luminaries, BBC One review|
21 Jun 20 – 21 Jun 21, ON BBC ONE