What to expect from NZ-set series The Luminaries

Adam Fresco previews episode one of The Luminaries, a BBC/TVNZ co-production based on Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning book.

When Eleanor Catton’s gargantuan second novel won the 2013 Man Booker Prize it was a proud moment for New Zealand literature. Catton’s first book, The Rehearsal, was turned into a sort-of okay but middling Kiwi movie, but the real prestige was the news that TVNZ had joined forces with UK powerhouse of serialised drama, the BBC, to bring this 1860s-set tale of the New Zealand gold rush to the screen.

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I remember reading the novel; a tome so enormous it took both hands to lift. Yet, despite its daunting size, the pleasure was in reading a page-turner tale full of romance, magic, intrigue, double-crosses and dastardly revenge—all set in the South Island settlement of Hokitika. As TV versions go, The Luminaries takes the usual route of ditching the richly rewarding narrative that only novels can deliver, and goes straight for the meat on the bone—the story.

Wisely leaving the astrological and zodiac sign allegories of the novel behind, the television version focuses firmly on young Britain, Anna (played with wide-eyed naïveté by U2 singer Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson), who travels to Aotearoa’s wild West Coast amidst the 1860s gold rush. Episode one plunges viewers straight on deck of the boat carrying Anna to the new world, where she meets and clicks immediately with fellow passenger and gold-prospector, Emery (earnestly played by Himesh Patel).

But, quicker than you can say “Jack and Rose in Titanic”, the two star-crossed, would-be lovers have their first date foiled. It transpires that Anna can’t read or write, a bit of a handicap when it comes to deciphering the address of Emery’s hotel, and one easily exploited by the seductively mysterious, unscrupulous brothel madame and fortune-telling astrologist, Lydia (played with cunning relish by Eva Green), and her righthand man, Francis Carver (played with cunning and brute force by a swashbuckling Marton Csokas, channelling his full inner-pirate).

What’s refreshing is that the epic nature of the book’s plot and the complexity of its interconnecting characters, whilst simplified, is pretty much retained. As anyone who watched the BBC’s 2016 miniseries based on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace knows, there’s nothing quite like an earnest and finely crafted TV series to reduce the sprawling narrative of great fiction to highly watchable, if soap operatic, costume drama.

That’s not a put-down, just how it goes when adapting literature into serial TV. It happens with Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, and it happens here, only this time we have, in addition to the period details of elaborate costumes, abundant facial hair and muddy streets, the distinct thrill of the series being shot on location in New Zealand. Anyone familiar with Oz and Kiwi central casting will recognise the myriad faces of local talent, all well served by Australian director, Claire McCarthy, who lends proceedings the lush intimacy shown in her 2018 feature film, Ophelia.

As of writing I have only seen episode one, and while some may struggle with the deliberate and often slow pace, this first foray into Catton’s tale does a fine job of setting the 1860s scene and characters, evoking people and place both specific to Aotearoa, yet immediately recognisable to lovers of BBC costume drama. A high-end soap opera and mystery tale, The Luminaries‘ first episode is replete with flashbacks, quirky characters, strange goings-on, and questions yet to be answered. As with any novel-to-screen transition, fans of the original tale will be pleased its core has been retained on screen, yet disappointed in how much is lost in translation.

With six-hours over which to spread the multitude of characters and multi-layered plot, The Luminaries‘ greatest asset is author Eleanor Catton, directly involved in adapting her book to the screen. This ensures the real heart of her massive tome, and strong female characterisations, are captured along with all the mystical and magical touches that made her opus such an involving read. It will be interesting to see if those unfamiliar with the source will have the patience and faith required to stay the course but, with the best of the twisting and thrilling story yet to come, I’m looking forward to the next five episodes, and keeping my fingers crossed that the slow pace of episode one picks up some much needed urgency.

Going by the first instalment, the focus on Anna and Lydia’s characters as the two women at the centre of a web of mystery, murder and serpentine machinations, will make for an effective narrative. That should be enough to hook viewers hungry for a slice of Kiwi life, set in the Wild West of an 1860s New Zealand that looks like a cross between the set of television’s Deadwood and the cast of a BBC Dickens’ novel adaptation, with enough modern-day feminism, old-fashioned mysticism, detective thriller-style mystery, romantic machinations, and Kiwi history thrown in to keep audiences seated for six hours of prestige serial TV.