‘The Luminaries’ Review: A worthy adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel by Eleanor Catton

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Himesh Patel and Ewe Hewson in 'The Luminaries'
Himesh Patel and Ewe Hewson in 'The Luminaries'
I recently stumbled upon the new BBC drama titled ‘The Luminaries’, which is a joint British and Kiwi production. An adaptation of the 2013 Booker Prize-winning novel by Eleanor Catton, the miniseries centers around a young adventurer named Anna Wetherall, who travels from the United Kingdom to start a new life on the South Island’s West Coast, situated in New Zealand, at the height of the gold rush. The Luminaries is directed by Claire McCarthy, the Australian writer-director known for films such as OpheliaLittle Hands, and The Waiting City.

The Luminaries is set in the year 1866 and so it is practically a Western saga set in the southern hemisphere. But it is also so much more. There is a murder mystery at the heart of it. And its cleverly crafted nonlinear narrative raises the level of suspense to another level. Also, there are dangerous levels of racism and misogyny prevalent in this treacherous world, which is inhabited by shifty fortune tellers, quixotic treasure hunters, duplicitous traders, friendly aborigines, damsels in distress and chivalrous men, and replete with all the charming coquetry and opium galore.

The Luminaries is a very complex novel and so adapting it into a miniseries was never going to be an easy task. Fortunately, the author herself was assigned the task of adapting the novel into the six episode miniseries and she seems to have done a solid job with the material. While cutting down heavily on the source material to the point of creating something very different, Catton still succeeds in keeping alive the novel’s epic quality, attention to period detail, sprawling appeal as well as the mystery and intrigue that makes the Booker Prize-winning novel what it is.

Eva Green as Lydia Wells in a still from 'The Luminaries'
Eva Green as Lydia Wells in a still from 'The Luminaries'
A character-driven show like The Luminaries depends on performances. And the ensemble cast led by Eve Hewson doesn’t disappoint. As Anna Wetherall, Eve Hewson brings a certain vulnerability to her portrayal of a damsel in distress that that adds conviction to her character as we are introduced to it. And as we get to learn more about Anna we begin to ask ourselves if she is really a damsel in distress, after all? For, she proves herself capable of holding her fort even under the most dire circumstances. Her enchanting beauty, grit and gumption are reminiscent of some of the most memorable Western heroines that we have come across over the last century.

Anna is pitted against a worthy adversary in form of Lydia Wells, essayed by none other than Eva Green. Lydia is an opportunist of the highest order but she is a survivor and knows what it takes to call the shots in a man’s world. Green is in the phase of her career wherein she is happy to play character roles that give her scope to try out new things. Lydia is not a likeable character by any means but every time Green is on screen one just can’t take one’s eyes off her. Hewson and Green are well supported by Marton Csokas, Ewen Leslie, Himesh Patel and the rest of the cast. Credit goes to director Claire McCarthy for overcoming budgetary constraints (as evident from the rather dim albeit moody lighting which all but spoils the party) to deliver a show that does what it’s supposed to do—take us on an escapist adventure down under.
Rating: 8/10
A version of this review was first published in Transcontinental Times.
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