'The Luminaries' TV show: 'magnificent and dense' landscape of New Zealand is key character

The show is a romantic introduction to the Southern Hemisphere country's 19th century gold rush

Opening scenes of The Luminaries feature Himesh Patel as Emery Staines and Eve Hewson as Anna Wetherell arriving in New Zealand in the 19th century. BBC / Starzplay 
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When the world is in a state of lockdown, there is something to be said for transportive television; a show that envelops the viewer completely by inviting them into a new world.

That is exactly what The Luminaries does. 

The new six-part BBC One adaptation of Eleanor Catton's award-winning novel by the same name is available to stream in the UAE on Starzplay from Thursday, June 4.

Starring familiar faces Eve Hewson, Eva Green and Himesh Patel, the series takes the viewer to New Zealand during the 1866 gold rush, a period I, perhaps ignorantly, was completely unaware of before watching the show.

When people think of the gold rush, they tend to think of California, but there was also one down in New Zealand, and because of its setting, The Luminaries brings fresh energy to the Wild West genre.

In parts, the show could act as a tourism campaign for the country. For the scenery alone, it is worth a watch – and the Antipodean island nation is “a key character”, says Patel.

For anyone who has been sitting tight in their living room for about 12 weeks now, the South Island’s rolling hills, inviting lakes and lush greenery will be an inviting brief escape from our homes.

Kiwi viewers, however, may put themselves at risk of developing homesickness.

"It was such a treat to shoot in such wild places," Green tells The National.

“I had never been there. So, it was actually part of the appeal to take on this project. The landscape is magnificent and dense,” she adds.

A whole Zodiac of characters

The premise of the show, and the 2013 novel, is rather complex.

Very early on the viewer is introduced to a large cast of characters, each associated with a Zodiac sign or an astronomical body.

Anyone who has read the book will instantly make the connection, although it is not an overwhelmingly prevalent theme in the TV series.

Eve Hewson as Anna Wetherell plays Patel's love interest. BBC / Starzplay 

The show follows defiant young adventurer Anna Wetherell, who has sailed from Britain to New Zealand to begin a new life, where she meets Emery Staines. It's a star-crossed love story featuring murder and revenge, telling the stories of the men and women who travelled across the world to make their fortunes. 

The show begins with Wetherell (Hewson) and Staines (Patel) first arriving in New Zealand. They represent the sun and the moon – two circling heavenly bodies.

We are introduced to our key love story early into the series. However, it will not be plain sailing for the young couple, despite their treacherous journey across the globe having only just ended.

The core love story

Overall, The Luminaries does a good job of blending mystery and fantasy, but it is not quite as mythical as one might originally anticipate.

“At the heart of it, it’s a love story, and hopefully it will give people a sort of relief in these troubled times,” says Patel. “It’s a beautiful love story, with murder mystery, too. It’s extremely compelling and it should be some good escapism for everybody right now.”

Former 'EastEnders' actor Himesh Patel plays Emery Staines in the BBC One six-part series ‘The Luminaries’. BBC / Starzplay 

Patel, 29, will be familiar to British TV fans, as he starred as Tamwar Masood in London-set soap opera EastEnders from 2007 until 2016. He has since been seen in Yesterday, a film that focuses on the music of The Beatles.

Irish actress Hewson, 28, is the daughter of U2 frontman Bono and starred as Marian in the 2018 adaptation of Robin Hood. She agrees with her co-star's take on the show: "It really is a story of resilience … Resilience is what people really need right now."

We see the young could-be couple arrive in Hokitika on New Zealand’s west coast. At first, they go their separate ways, agreeing to meet again that same night.

But we already know their love story is not going to be particularly straightforward.

It really is a story of resilience … Resilience is what people really need right now

The timeline jumps months into the future, giving us a glimpse of what is in store for them as they settle into their lives amid the gold rush. Wetherell is forced into sex work and is accused of a dark crime, while Staines is set on finding the woman he met when he initially arrived in this foreign land. 

Despite their love story being the “core of the series", Patel says the pair did not actually film together until very late in the production.

“It was funny,” he says. “We shot a couple of months before Christmas and then we went back to shoot rest of the show.

"Then we realised that we had yet to shoot a scene together." That's because the duo are not often seen together in the TV series.

“The two characters are circling, never quite catching each other, which is something that we hope gets people involved in the story … that mission to just find each other,” he explains.

Enter the ‘pantomime villain’

There is an obvious vulnerability to Wetherell as she arrives in New Zealand, a quality that seems to disappear when we see the character in scenes set in the future.  

French actress Eva Green plays Lydia Wells, a businesswoman and the show's antihero. BBC / Starzplay 

That could largely be because of the character of Lydia Wells, played by Green. She is a local businesswoman (or is that madame?) who tricked Wetherell while she was on her hunt for Staines and set the young woman off on a rocky road.

Green acknowledges her character is the show’s antihero, but says she cannot be branded with one simple label. “It is the case with the most interesting baddies, when they crack and you feel something is fragile,” says the French actress, who previously starred in Casino Royale.

The character of Wells is fuelled by love for herself, which is also not simple or linear in its narrative. “She is a survivor,” Green says, “and like many survivors, she feels she is above the law, that she can have whatever she desires, no matter the cost. She is a driven woman, very young and power-hungry.”

The pressure of adapting popular novel

Each of the cast members approached the project differently. While Patel and Hewson read Catton’s novel in preparation, Green chose not to.

“I had obviously heard about the book and it is a very well-known novel, but I preferred not to read it to not get influenced by it.

Lydia (Eva Green) meets a young vulnerable Anna (Eve Hewson) shortly after she arrives in New Zealand. BBC / Starzplay 

“I had heard the script and my character, in particular, was different from the original book. And the fact that Eleanor [the original author] was adapting the novel into the script was quite reassuring ... I trusted her completely.”

People who have read the book should not assume they know exactly how The Luminaries will play out.

“It’s completely different," says Patel, "but it’s amazing the way that Eleanor adapted her own story for the show and the way it all comes together.”