TV Review – The Luminaries
Period dramas are always going to pull me in as an eager viewer, and since we are still in semi-isolation due to that pesky virus, anything new in this genre will pique my interest. The Luminaries on Starz is just one of those period dramas, and with Eva Green attached as one of the main characters, it is a given that it has already been added to my streaming queue.
The Luminaries takes place in New Zealand in 1866, an uncommon time and place for such a story. Still, the setting allows for the injection of New Zealand beauty and informs viewers about this period’s history. The limited series starts with a hazy flash-forward to a suspected murder in a small house, of which one of our lead characters Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson), stumbles upon in a drugged stupor only to pass out on the porch. Before this, a native Maori warrior Te Rau Tauwhare (Richard Te Are) somehow survived a gunshot to the chest and laid motionless in the grass nearby. Two well-respected gentlemen come by the scene, and the chaos ensues. These few minutes and whoever committed murder is the climax of the series; the story catches up to this moment as the episodes progress.
There is a gold rush during this period in New Zealand, similar to that of the western United States. People are coming from all over to stake a claim and try to become rich. We are introduced to Anna on a ship as she nears New Zealand on a long journey from London. On the last day, she meets Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), and they strike up a friendship. They promise to meet each other for dinner that night at Emery’s hotel. We learn that it is Emery’s birthday, as well as Anna’s.
The trailer for the series alluded to a possible magical element, and the first episode’s opening scenes appeared to reinforce that sentiment. However, the closest the series gets to a magical component is the inclusion of astrology. Astrology and the telling of fortunes make up the bulk of Lydia Wells’ (Eva Green) business in the main harbor town in New Zealand. Anna finds her way into Lydia’s path quickly through a stolen purse and becomes in her debt after losing her money. Anna is given a place to sleep and trained as Lydia’s assistant. We find out later that Lydia is directing Anna away from Emery and trying to keep her close. The one thing that Lydia does tell her is that Emery and Anna may be “astral twins,” two people born on the same day, year, and moment in time, and under the same sky.
Considering this is a time of a gold rush, plenty of shady characters are trying to take advantage of the uneducated and naïve. Unfortunately for Anna, she is surrounded by many. As a single girl with no money to her name, she is bound to be involved in relationships that do nothing for her well-being. Enter Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie), the forever absent husband of Lydia, who struck it rich and stumbles back home with his bag of gold in hand. He thinks he is back home, back to safety, but he has never been in so much danger than when he crossed the threshold. At first glance, one would assume that to make it to where he is; he can’t have that many morals. Plainly, he won the chance to marry Lydia in a rigged game that he should never have been able to win. Believing in astrology, Lydia agrees to marry him anyway. While not in love, but possibly in lust, Crosbie is enchanted by Lydia’s beauty, but so is another, former convict Francis Carver (Marton Csokas). Unfortunately for Crosbie, Lydia is entirely in love with Francis.
Francis and Lydia’s scheming leads to their deception and treachery of Crosbie, Anna, and Emery. The series relocates its setting to a smaller gold rush town where all the characters eventually end up together again, some in worse conditions than others. Emery is still trying to find Anna, and things get strange between them due to the “astral twins” connection. We are introduced to a friendship between Emery, Te Rau, and Crosbie, as well as Anna taking up business with Dick Mannering (Erik Thomson) to become a high-priced lady of the night for those coming to town to find gold.
The inclusion of one native character in Te Rau does some service to what the indigenous peoples were experiencing with Europeans’ influx to their land. However, Te Rau’s backstory isn’t examined in detail, and no other Maori show up in the series. His character is mostly used to help others’ stories play out and be a friend. The series also features Chinese people, although it isn’t touched on whether they came of their own volition or were brought under duress. What is blatantly clear is that the Chinese are seen as second-class citizens, segregated from the rest of the people. Quee Long (Gary Young) is an older Chinese man, working himself to the bone to find some glimmering gold in a stake. He is brought into the story more once Emery comes into town, but he is always compassionate and careful with those who don’t see him as a lesser human. Sook Yongsheng (Yoson An) arrives in New Zealand at the same time as Anna and Emery, but he has a plan involving Francis that goes back to his homeland. His story gets further complicated when Anna tries to help him.
The Luminaries is a complex story including many complicated characters. It is no wonder that the story ended up as a limited series versus a two-hour film. The relationships between the characters are not what they seem initially, and throughout the six episodes, they are unraveled and exposed. While the astral twin’s element between Anna and Emery kept a supernatural edge to the series, it is nothing like I thought the series would be. There is grasping at straws (or gold) and trying to maintain pacts and hidden relationships while there is no real growth in the characters, baring to all that was already there. Sometimes the series struggles to decide if it is a whodunit or a western adventure with a touch of a love story. Not all of the characters fit in well with the storyline for a specific episode. While Eva Green pulled me into the series, Ewen Leslie’s Crosbie ended up being the most compelling character. Crosbie went on a journey of self-discovery and redeemed himself of any preconceived notions by the audience. The Luminaries is worth your time on a lazy Sunday, but maybe not for an exciting Friday night binge.