In The Luminaries, two passengers aboard a ship to New Zealand in 1865 strike up an interest in one another before they are soon parted. Those star-crossed voyagers, Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), are later discovered to be “astral twins”—two people who are born near one another on the same day and at the exact time, who thus share a fate. In this case, they are accidentally caught up in a scheme regarding deception, mayhem, and gold.
The six-episode series, based on Eleanor Catton’s novel of the same name (Catton also wrote the TV series), takes place over two timelines through the course of a year. In the first, Anna and Emery have just arrived in New Zealand and begin to seek their fortunes—unsuccessfully—while in the other, Emery has disappeared and Anna is being held for murder, though she cannot recall the events of the night it occurred.
What should be a compelling mystery is instead a very drawn-out series of meetings and coincidences, netted together by a murky sense of fate we are introduced to via Lydia Wells (Eva Green), a spiritualist and student of astronomy who runs a hotel while her prospector husband is away. Lydia conspires to get Anna to work for her as an apprentice, but after a number of personal conflicts where Anna sees Lydia for the schemer she is, Anna is cast out and forced into sex work to make ends meet. Emery, meanwhile, is similarly drawn into a swindle by Lydia’s co-conspirator Francis Carver (Marton Csokas), all of which is connected to the eventual gold rush success of Lydia’s husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie).
The twists and turns of The Luminaries are mild, and despite a textbook-level satisfactory conclusion to these many narrative threads, the emotions never quite come through. The series seems like it will be about Anna and Emery, when in fact Emery is little more than a footnote to the proceedings. And while Green is typically luminous, there is simply not enough of her or enough for her to do. Despite the pretense of mystery and even supernatural connections, those elements are never given enough focus to create a compelling story.
Even its New Zealand gold rush setting, which should feel fresh and different, is never used to its full effect. With thinly-drawn characters and no sense of place, the story could really be anywhere. There is some cursory inclusion of a Maori character, Te Rau Tauwhare (Richard Te Are), but like a casual and mostly unexplored subplot regarding Chinese day laborers who are connected to the opium trade, it sadly doesn’t have much of an impact.
The Luminaries is a series full of potential that has all of the right elements to be a success, but its sleepy script never makes it feel vital. At best it feels like a languid, meandering exploration, and at worst it just skims over all of the best parts for repetitious scenes and obtuse refusals to reveal key information that drags things out. (A note to book readers, Catton changed quite a bit of the structure from the novel.)
The series joins a host of other recent TV dramas that are aggressively inoffensive—they take no risks, aren’t particularly engaging, but they’re also fine. It’s a shame, since Green’s talents in particular beg for something meatier (as do her exceptional outfits). The Luminaries is placidly entertaining, and Hewson is likable in a listless role that becomes the focus of the entire production, but it lacks any spark that might make it an essential watch.
The Luminaries premieres Sunday, February 14th on Starz
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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