The world of The Luminaries is rich with possibilities. Set in the mid-1800s during New Zealand’s gold rush, the series ventures into historical drama, romance, murder mystery, and mystical science fiction. The challenge lies in fusing these genres into a cohesive story, and The Luminaries, despite some strong performances and absolutely stunning cinematography, doesn’t quite pull it off. The series is based on Eleanor Catton’s award-winning 2013 novel of the same name; the author also wrote the series, but as she veers from certain elements of her book, the ideas don’t translate into a rewarding television adaptation. There are enough seeds planted for all the genres the show explores, but none of these ideas get the attention they need to flourish.
This love story starts off in 1865, as Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) meet on the last day of their voyage from Britain to New Zealand’s Dunedin, where they hope to find gold. The two spend merely a few minutes together, bonding over discussions of albatross myths and a button exchange, promising to meet up for dinner in town. Unfortunately, events conspire in a way that prevents them from seeing each other again for several months. Anna finds work and lodging with the charming yet wicked fortune teller Lydia Wells (Eva Green), while Lydia’s secret lover Francis Carver (Marton Csokas) plots with her to keep Anna and Emery apart by going into business with the latter. Their lives continue to unravel, especially once Lydia’s husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie), returns after mining and finding a fortune in gold. The opening montage, which takes place several months later in 1866, sets up an intriguing mystery—one of these people is dead in a cabin somewhere, and Anna is the primary suspect.
The Luminaries attempts to weave a fascinating tale of deceit and revenge, mostly told through the Anna’s lens. In 1865, she has to figure out a way to escape from Lydia’s web of lies. A year later, she struggles to prove herself innocent of murder, but it’s difficult because of her former profession as a sex worker and her addiction to opium. These two parallel stories of how Anna copes with her circumstances are told through flashbacks and in the post-murder present. Unfortunately, this frequent jumping between timelines undermines the story, complicating it more than it needs to while failing to juggle the show’s many themes. The first episode, “Fingerprint,” does an effective job of setting up the suspense, the locations, and the characters with a ton of potential. But the pace frustratingly slows down from there until the penultimate fifth episode, “Paradox,” which finally begins to offer some answers. Each episode is an hour long, but instead of fleshing out a backstory for Anna, Lydia, and Emery or the motives for any of their actions and decisions, The Luminaries suspends itself to ambitious storytelling formats.
At its core, this is supposed to be a tragic love story between the star-crossed Anna and Emery. However, the encounter that seems to be etched in their minds is too brief to really care about. It’s not the sweeping romance of, say, Outlander’s Jamie and Claire, another couple from a historical, sci-fi drama who are easy to root for despite having spent so much time apart. While there was a solid build-up to Jamie and Claire’s relationship, The Luminaries doesn’t take the time to offer that to Anna and Emery in its six-episode journey, making it difficult to care about whether they finally end up together or not. The romance between the two is swept under the rug for so long that an anticipated, inevitable reunion doesn’t have the desired impact.
This also applies to the supernaturally tinged angle of the drama. The Luminaries showcases but doesn’t dwell on the mysticism of astral twins and souls. The book relied heavily on the ideas of astrology, zodiac signs, stars, and other heavenly bodies in the solar system to explain the astral twins concept, but the series glosses over it with a voiceover or two from Lydia. These phenomena make for a far more intriguing narrative than what the show decides to focus on: the murder mystery. Even then, the resolution to that plot feels predictable, though it is oddly satisfying to watch that story conclude in courtroom case à la How To Get Away With Murder or Suits.
But the series’ biggest disservice, especially in terms of the script, is to Patel. The Yesterday and Tenet actor is endearing as the leading hero, yet he is given far too little screen time to develop his performance into something meaningful. Hewson and Green are the real draw here. Green gets to channel a little bit of her Penny Dreadful persona, complete with a scene involving ghostly possession. Hewson delivers like a pro, conveying Anna’s heartbreaking emotions more with her expressions and body language than via dialogue. The Luminaries doesn’t dig deep enough into its many possibilities—including any lore of the country it is set in—but Hewson’s soulful performance carries the show forward until its end.