For the second time in as many weeks we have a “local” period drama taking place in the Gold Rush era.
New Zealand / UK miniseries The Luminaries also features Yoson An, who starred in the recent SBS drama New mountain of gold.
However the main character on this occasion is Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) who has sailed to Dunedin NZ to start a new life. This will involve an adventure she hadn’t planned and tests of her character.
This six-part mini-series is based on Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel and is set in two periods, nine months apart.
Anna meets a fellow traveler named Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) as their boat arrives in Dunedin. Both born on the same day, their attraction is deflected by local fortune teller Lydia Wells (Eva Green) who accompanies Anna to her local establishment of drunken men and easygoing women. Despite her new surroundings, Anna is a quick learner, coming to the aid of Sook Yongsheng (Yoson An) when her argument with local prospectors turns acrimonious.
Lydia’s husband Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie) also takes a liking to her, having just returned from the gold fields on the west coast. His marriage to Lydia is steeped in a backstory that reveals her attraction to ex-con Francis Carver (Marton Csokas).
But 9 months later, in the second storyline, Anna has been arrested for opium use, prostitution and attempted suicide while the local authorities (Callan Mulvey) are investigating a possible murder. Also in the mix are the local warrior (Richard Te Are) and Erik Thomson as the local businessman.
Beneath it all ripple Maori cultural traditions and the astrological powers of the wicked Lydia, in a sort of spiritual pull of fates, star-crossed lovers, deceit and desire.
The tapestry of characters and time shifts requires attention just to keep up with the plot (the book was around 800 pages) and characters representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Eve Hewson achieves a lot as a sometimes silent spectator without the need for long-winded dialogue and Ewan Leslie masters a complex role that shifts our sympathies.
The story seems overwhelmed by its colonial perspective, if well dressed in period costume, but given its basis is Western astrology, that’s not exactly surprising. The series is widely accessible if you are committed to Anna/Emery’s love story and if their destiny can be fulfilled.
While it’s not always told basking under a full moon, either technically or thematically, the cast thankfully pulls it off.
The Luminaries airs Sunday, October 31 on Paramount+.