The Luminaries review: Less Fate-fuelled epic, more period drama whodunit with a dash of the supernatural
Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Now a BBC miniseries (airing in India on Netflix), the screen adaptation doesn't feel all that award-winning.
The protagonists in The Luminaries are "astral twins": two (unrelated) individuals who were born at the exact same moment, under the same sky, and therefore share a common destiny. They meet — Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) — on a ship to New Zealand, where both are hoping to prospect for gold. It is the very end of their voyage, but Anna and Emery are so affected by the other's presence that they agree to meet on shore for supper later that evening. He hands her a note with the name and address of his hotel.
Of course, when two individuals are ordained to come together by the stars, then narrative tension demands that they be kept apart. And so it is with Anna and Emery, who find themselves on very different paths, courtesy a series of unfortunate events, or rather the machinations of unscrupulous parties.
The unscrupulous parties in this case are Lydia Wells (Eva Green) and her paramour, a former convict by the name of Frank Carver (Marton Csokas). While her husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie), is away prospecting, Lydia runs a fortune-telling establishment much favoured by the entranced gentleman in the area. It is Lydia who explains the concept of "astral twins" to Anna, having employed her as an apprentice.
Lydia may appear to be a friendly benefactress, but Anna soon realises that her employer/landlady has precipitated her present dire circumstances and separation from Emery. Anna also uncovers Lydia and Frank's plot to murder a recently-returned-home-flush-with-gold Crosbie. Her plan to save Crosbie is only partly successful: he escapes with his life, but his gold is long gone.
The stolen gold runs like a seam through this story, turning up in odd places and ending up in the most unlikely hands. Its circuitous journey is mirrored by the people who come into contact with it, knowingly or otherwise. Perhaps the gold too, like the characters in this story, isn't exempt from the decrees of Fate.
For Fate is what drives this plot. While The Luminaries novel, by Eleanor Catton, made the relation between zodiac signs and her characters explicit, in this screen adaptation, it is evinced more through Lydia's dialogue. But even unstated, its hand is visible in the way the characters are all pushed towards an inevitable climax.
This climax — dating nine months after Anna and Emery first meet — is what The Luminaries miniseries (scripted by Catton herself) begins with: a dazed woman stumbles through the woods. She touches the ripped bodice of her dress and her hand comes away smeared with gold dust. A little distance away, a Maori youth approaches a log cabin and calls out on seeing a tall figure standing outside it, who raises a pistol and shoots the youth square in the chest. As the shooter leaves the scene, the woman reaches the cabin and falters at its doorstep, before falling down in a stupor. Within the cabin, the owner lies dead. A passing rider sees the unconscious woman and carries her away to get medical help. They are followed by the Maori youth, who seems miraculously to have survived the gunshot.
Once in town, the identities of most of these characters is revealed: the woman is Anna, the dead cabin owner is Crosbie, the Maori youth is a friend of Crosbie and Emery's — Te Rau Tauwhare (Richard Te Are) , and the rider who comes upon them is a politician, Alistair Lauderback (Benedict Hardie).
Anna is quickly imprisoned by the local jailer, who seems to think that because she now works as a prostitute, she is also likely to be a murderer. Worse though is that Anna can't remember what happened during the night or how she landed up at Crosbie's hideaway. As her trial is planned and Lydia and Frank show up seeking vengeance, Anna pieces together what she can of the strange night.
In a chain reaction contraption, an "input domino" — the trigger event — sets off many big and small components into motion, ultimately leading to the desired result. Think of The Luminaries as many of these contraptions, all set into motion at the same time, with their results then feeding into a final reaction.
For that very specific climax sequence to take place, some of the events leading up to it can be traced back to many, many years ago, while others are more recent: an indiscretion on the part of Alistair Lauderback's father, Crosbie Wells boarding the wrong ship, a rigged Wheel Of Fortune malfunctioning, Anna and Emery being born at the same time, Lydia and Anna's first meeting, Emery's friendship with Te Rau Tauwhare, Anna's acquaintance with a Chinese immigrant called Ah Sook, Lydia and Frank's plan to spirit away the stolen gold.
And like a magnet attracting iron filings, all these characters and events and chain reactions converge in the town of Hokitika, where their individual fates await.
Lushly mounted and briskly paced (The Luminaries is six episodes long, each about 50 minutes in length — no mean feat of condensing an 800+ page-book), the miniseries makes for an engaging binge. But beyond the urge to unravel its central mystery, it doesn't make you feel all that invested in the fates of its characters.
Catton's style in writing The Luminaries lightly satirised the 19th century novel, but in this screen adaptation those tropes induce a sense of deja vu. Anna's descent into hard times is foregone, while Emery gets a long monologue to lay out the twists and turns of the case, typical of the denouement in detective fiction. Lydia's femme fatale act begins to grate after a while. A scene that was central to the book — 12 men and a newcomer discussing the murder of Crosbie Wells and the case against Anna — here feels entirely out of place. And while one is meant to attribute the many components (and there are *many*) of the narrative coming together at one time and place to Fate — right down to a packet of letters procured at a most opportune moment — one wonders just how much attention to detail Fate would have to have, to effect such an outcome, for one small group of mortals.
Despite the slips from page to screen, with a few scenes lit so poorly that viewers have complained about being unable to see what's going on, The Luminaries is certainly worth a watch. In sum, it is less an epic and more a period drama whodunit with sprinklings of the supernatural; but then again, that needn't be a bad thing.
All six episodes of The Luminaries are currently available on Netflix.
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