On paper, a period drama set in nineteenth-century New Zealand during the height of the gold rush feels fresh and different, precisely the sort of story we should see more of in a television landscape that's too-often obsessed with tales of Regency England. Yet, instead of being an exciting new addition to the genre, the new Starz series The Luminaries ultimately squanders these gifts, resulting in a bland, ultimately forgettable six-hour story that often feels much longer. (Interminable was the word I almost used there.)
An adaptation of Eleanor Cotton's ambitious 2013 novel of the same name, the story of The Luminaries is a dense and complicated tale, touching over a dozen major characters and incorporating everything from romance and mystery to murder and the supernatural. But the series never quite manages to construct a cohesive whole out of these many disparate pieces and struggles to make viewers care about its characters.
Ostensibly, the story follows Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), two passengers who meet onboard a ship to New Zealand in 1865, both seeking their fortunes on the island. But the show's larger plot unfolds in two parallel timelines, one that follows the fresh off the boat pair and another, set a year later, in which Emery has disappeared and Anna is being held on suspicion of murder, but cannot recall the events of the night about which she is being questioned.
This would probably be a more compelling plot if we, as viewers, cared at all about Anna and Emery's relationship, but the two share little chemistry, and the show's insistence that the two are a star-crossed as pair of "astral twins" because they share a birthday is ridiculous to the point of parody. Though they arrange to meet for dinner on their first night on the island, it turns out that Anna can't read, and so is unable to sort out where they're supposed to go This makes her an easy mark for Lydia Wells (Eva Green), the town's vaguely witchy fortune teller and general con artist, who is simultaneously the best and most confusing part of the show.
As Lydia spins a complicated web that ensnares both newcomers - she tempts Anna to become part of her vaguely supernatural bordello, in which she draws marks in with tarot card readings and overly complex blather about astrology, rather than sex. Meanwhile, Francis Carver, a roguish businessman with whom Lydia's secretly having an affair, is busy swindling naive newcomer Emery, who knows virtually nothing about looking for gold. From there, things only get more complicated and weird: Lydia's husband returns from prospecting with loads of gold, Anna eventually turns to sex work to survive, and Emery...exists in the background for the most part, I guess. (Patel is almost entirely wasted here.)
Green is a propulsive force as Lydia, who is clearly manipulating Anna for her own ends, but never quite gets enough to do - or enough of an edge while doing it. (Though Penny Dreadful fans will enjoy her in this role, which feels an awful like Vanessa Ives' distant cousin who likes to talk about star charts all the time.) She also gets the best outfits, a fact which should surprise no one.
The Luminaries walks a strange line between its surface inclinations as a straightforward frontier period drama and its roots in Cotton's novel, which it largely chooses to display through strange, avant-garde filming choices, in which blood literally turns into gold dust and it's difficult to tell whether what we're watching is really happening. It also leans heavily on unreliable narrators and those under the influence of opium, Maori superstition, or a desperate need to rewrite their own pasts.
Granted, I have not read the original book upon which this series is based, and perhaps that does a more credible job at incorporating all the weird stuff about astrology and star signs that seems so incoherent here. But, despite giving Green some of her most dramatic scene-chewing scenes, there's little logic to the series' continued incorporation of heavenly bodies and the zodiac, and you shouldn't feel bad about having little to no idea about what all of that means. (Which, in the world of the show itself, ultimately adds up to not much.)
To be fair, the cast here is, on average much better than the bulk of the material they're given. As mentioned above, Green is the series' standout, but Hewson is equally good in a much more thankless sort of role. As Anna's life unravels, Hewson deftly conveys not just her heartbreak over her degrading personal circumstances but how crushing it is for her to realize that the place she'd imagined as both an escape and a fresh start is neither.
The thing is, The Luminaries isn't bad, per se. And if you're a fan of this genre there's plenty to enjoy here. But it's also not good, either, and it's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend a series that repeatedly wastes its best elements. Sure, the mystical astrology stuff is hard to take at times, but it's also like so much of this show - it could have been really compelling, had the narrative committed to it beyond a couple of random voiceovers from Lydia. (It's certainly more interesting than the murder mystery that the show decides to build itself around instead.)
But, Green and Hewson are better than they have any reason to be here, and for many viewers, that'll be reason enough to give this show a look.
The Luminaries premieres on Starz on Sunday, February 14. Planning to give it a try? Were you a fan of the original book? Let us know in the comments.