The opening scene of Starz’s “The Luminaries” takes place in the middle of the night in 1866, outside a shack — or something — on New Zealand’s South Island. Someone gets shot, maybe, and there’s some sort of glitter or sparkly stuff that spurts from a voluminous pink dress and, well, it’s probably gold because this tale unfolds during the Otago Gold Rush. Maybe?
Like the entire plot of “The Luminaries,” everything in this opening scene is overstuffed and hard to discern. Take a moment and adjust the settings on your screen per the recommendation of my colleague Chris O’Falt, who solved this problem two years back when we were all peering through the chiaroscuro of “Game of Thrones.”
Airing on Starz almost a year after it debuted on TVNZ 1 and BBC One, “The Luminaries” comes with a promising pedigree. Eleanor Catton adapted own her 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel. Eve Hewson and Eva Green star, two actors who can strikingly combine beauty and menace as they hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-scorned stalk each other around New Zealand’s stormy beaches, each wearing Victorian mourning garb.
Both in visuals and tone, “The Luminaries” is purposefully murky, packed very full with criss-crossing and double-crossing motives and motivations. What results is a mix of astrological archetypes and a wild west tale, a combination that obviously worked to great acclaim in Catton’s original 850-page doorstop of a novel but results in such incoherence in this adaptation that a major character has to deliver a minutes-long monologue of all the proceedings from the witness box during the final episode’s showcase trial. This might be acceptable in some “You can’t handle the truth!” kind of Sorkin-y grandstanding, but in this one, the witness doesn’t just need to explain it to the judge; the witness needs to explain it to the audience.
At its base (and I mean this is a very basic base, before the opium addictions, and seances, and casual racism, and the shipwreck, and secret half-siblings, and intermittent illiteracy, and political campaigns, and the pregnant woman shoved out of a second story window) “The Luminaries” is a tale of Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), who meet as they are about to disembark the ship that brought them to New Zealand from London. It’s a nice little costume drama meet-cute: he’s missing a button, and she has one at the ready! Golly, it turns out to be both their birthdays! The two star-crossed lovers are then kept apart by an incredible number of malefic people and events, including astrologer/pub owner/fraud Lydia Wells (Eva Green) and her literal gold-digging lover Francis Carver (Marton Csokas).
The overly complex proceedings are only made watchable thanks to the work of Hewson and Green, both spirited and deft despite being asked to go to some preposterous lengths. Six episodes could have been dedicated to them — Hewson looking like a muse of Alphone Mucha alongside Green and her Klimt cheekbones —fleecing prospectors with booze and light witchcraft, and I would have watched them all with glee, pointy hat on and broom by my side. Instead, they are dragged through the wringer at the behest of inevitably male counterparts in one fleeting tangential scene after another. Here’s the landlord being creepy and demanding rent! Here’s the aspiring local politico stunned by Lydia’s beauty! Here’s the Chinese immigrant laborer who shelters Anna on one of her opium binges! Oh, and whoops, here’s Lydia’s husband who has an affair with the fresh-off-the-boat Anna.
There are a couple of darlings here that Catton should have killed off in her adaptation, and it’s only revealed several episodes in how doing so would have fundamentally altered the structure of the work. As it turns out, the men encountered by Hewson represent the traditional mythological attributes of the 12 signs of the zodiac and the inner planets: Mars is war! Venus is love! Scorpio is a shady opium dealer! This is — kinda cool? I rather wish it had been introduced in the first episode instead of via voiceover almost at the very end of the series?
The supernatural undercurrent in Catton’s story surfaces inconsistently; it either has too little of an impact on the story, or far, far too much. I — an, ahem, Libra Sun, Gemini Moon, Gemini Rising — have a high tolerance for woo-woo, but once astral twin stigmata entered the chat to help prove a suspected killer’s innocence, I groaned loudly.
What Starz’s “The Luminaries” did, counterintuitively, is make me want to read the book. So turn off the TV and bust out your Kindle. Catton was the youngest author to ever win a Booker Prize, and she did it with the longest novel ever. It’s sold more than half a million copies. All of this points to a triumph. But in this scattershot adaptation, all you can see is an eclipse of something that’s probably quite beautiful when it is full.
The first of six episodes in “The Luminaries” premieres Sunday, February 14 at 9:30 p.m. ET on Starz. Episodes will be released weekly.