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The Luminaries review: A convoluted yet intriguing story that requires infinite patience

The BBC miniseries set in 1800s New Zealand features a surreal murder mystery, greed, revenge, and an estranged couple connected through unexplained mystical forces, and it is set against the backdrop of a gold rush

The Luminaries review: A convoluted yet intriguing story that requires infinite patience
  • Ryan Gomez

Last Updated: 05.58 AM, Feb 15, 2023

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Story: A woman named Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) sails to New Zealand in the 19th century in the hopes of finding gold, for a fresh start in life. She meets a man named Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) on the final day of her trip and almost immediately develops feelings for him. However, their rendezvous is sabotaged by a woman named Lydia Wells (Eva Green) through a series of incidents she orchestrates. Anna finds herself trapped in a web of deception, lies, and betrayal — all connected to an unexplained murder for which she is the prime suspect.


Review: The Luminaries, for better or worse, offer a unique experience in terms of how the narrative is tailored for the audience. There are two timelines — the story’s ongoing timeline and the one that begins nine months prior, leading up to the ongoing story. While the back and forth between the two timelines is relatively easy to follow, the non-linear structure is poorly written and edited, and only those who are well versed with the source material, a novel by Eleanor Catton, will be able to fully comprehend the crux of the story. This renders the first two episodes devoid of a cohesive narrative where characters are thrown into the mix at random, with little to no exposition.


Fortunately, by the fourth episode of the six-part mini-series, the puzzles slowly start to align in position and begin to make sense. However, the convoluted opening episode also hinders the character development, which makes them unrelatable for the audience. In other words, the audience will not have a vested interest to root for the lead characters. Anna’s plight deserves sympathy, but it is not convincingly depicted on the screen to warrant an overflowing of grief and sadness for her cause. Furthermore, Himesh Patel’s Emery Staines is almost an afterthought in the first few episodes. And the introduction of new characters is almost impossible to keep track of, and it is only in the finale these characters are fully realised.


Eva Green’s character Lydia Wells, the master manipulator and the true antagonist of the story is well-written. In fact, Lydia and her husband Crosbie, are probably the only two characters who have thoroughly fleshed-out arcs. Whereas Eve Hewson’s excellent performance as Anna Wetherell is almost wasted because of poor character development. Marton Csokas as Francis Carver and Ewen Leslie as Crosbie, Wells, the two main players involved in theft and murder, also essay their roles with aplomb. Through the characters of Tu Rau Tauwhare (Richard Te Are), Sook Yongsheng (Yoson An), and Quee Long (Gary Young), the series Aldi explores racism, imperialism, and the involvement of Europeans in the opium trade in China.


Despite the obvious shortcomings, the series has plenty to offer; from stellar performances by the cast, stunning set design, and an intriguing murder mystery. But one must be willing to sit through the first four episodes to get to a point where the plot becomes fully engaging. The finale is certainly engrossing, as it features a 19th-century courtroom drama. But the fantasy element of the story is jarring at times or at least has not been translated well for television. People who have read the book would certainly find more positives in this adaptation, but it fails to stand on its own as a TV series.


Verdict: The Luminaries is a messy, convoluted, and tedious TV show, but it offers stunning visuals and engaging performances. And the payoff at the end certainly makes up for the patience required to sit through the first four episodes. But it begs the question of whether one should struggle to watch a series in the hopes of a decent finale.