REVIEW: The Luminaries (S1 E1/6)

Full disclosure: I’ve not read Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning novel, The Luminaries.

So I was coming into this series fresh as a daisy and didn’t quite know what to expect. All I knew was that there was a murder mystery in play in among all the rough and tumble of a 19th-century frontier costume drama.

We picked up the story in glorious New Zealand – looking like Cornwall with a frown in this series. A man was found dead in his cabin, the only witnesses to his mysterious death a young woman – Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) and a Maori man, who was only saved from a gunshot thanks to a pendant around his neck.

Anna was taken into custody and was for the noose unless she could prove herself innocent.

We then flashbacked to some months earlier, to see Anna arrive in New Zealand from London. On the boat, she met an earnest young man called Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), who fell for her forthright charms immediately. They arranged to meet for dinner once on land.

Except Anna didn’t make the date: her purse was stolen on the way to her lodgings and she instead fell in with an enigmatic saloon madame, Lydia Wells (Eva Green) who offered her a job.

Eva Green was born to play this role – Wells was glamorous, strange, beguiling, and evidently able to weave spells so to attract people to her like moths to a flame. By the end of episode one, we were not entirely sure what her game was – for a 19th-century person, she was enlightened, believed in magic and the kinetic energy of the planets. She was also a dab-hand at skullduggery after she hired a convict man looking to make a new start to take out Staines. Why? I wasn’t quite sure.

There were other characters flitting around here, the significance of who I wasn’t quite sure – priests, a sort of gruff, bad sheriff, a Chinese man who shot up the hotel bar…

If this all sounds a bit vague it’s because it was – the frontier town in which this group of characters inhabit was straight out of a western, while New Zealand itself was sumptuous (as ever) but it all felt like a bit of a muddle. There’s obviously a long way to go, and there’s already opium, intrigue and gold aplenty – in fact, gold seems to be an intoxicating substance all of its own in this story; it swirled around everywhere like a drug and quite obviously made people do strange things.

And there’s that word again: strange.

While it was hardly a rip-roarer, and for a first episode it was a slow start with duelling timelines to boot. I can’t say I loved The Luminaries but it did have a certain unidentifiable quality about it that will probably mean I’ll be back for more.

Paul Hirons

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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