It’d seem that “The Luminaries,” Eleanor Catton’s 2013 novel, might provide grist for an adaptation of unusual and extreme ambition. In order to do the work’s scope justice, it’d have to be: At over 800 pages — the longest novel to have won the prestigious Booker Prize — the book traces a vast cast of characters, 12 of whom are assigned virtues associated with the signs of the Zodiac. These characters’ actions, against the backdrop of an 1866 New Zealand gold rush, might be seen as influenced by still more characters, who are meant to represent heavenly bodies.
All of which suggests a certain daring on the part of the filmmakers willing to take such a project on. And yet “The Luminaries,” a limited series debuting this month on Starz after having been acquired from Fremantle and airing first on the BBC, seems most complicated and challenging only inasmuch as it has two distinct and easy-to-distinguish timelines, one following ambitious and sprightly Anne Wetherell (Eve Hewson) upon her arrival to New Zealand and one after she’s suffered a fall. There are pleasures to be had from both sides of her journey, but the show has a certain rigid clumsiness in taking on complicated source material that does not serve it well. Despite engaging lead performances and attention to visual detail, “The Luminaries” never lights up.
The story is powered by two relationships, the first of them Anne’s pairing with Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), whom she meets on her passage to New Zealand. The pair are drawn to one another, with the carefree Anne tearing a button off her sleeve to repair Emery’s vest. Shortly thereafter, Anne meets the local community pillar-cum-witchy villainess Lydia Wells (Eva Green), who in very short order begins lecturing Anne on the nature of the stars and their impact on humanity. “It’s not just the day that matters,” Lydia intones, explaining the horoscope. “The year, the hour, the minute, even the horizon all have their part to play.” It seems Anne and Emery are Starz-crossed lovers — “astral twins” sharing a “cosmic fingerprint.”
The concept of the horoscope may be new to certain characters in the story, but it isn’t to many in the audience, and it can feel frustrating to be slow-walked through an organizing principle for the story — all the more so because this principle doesn’t meaningfully pay off. Deep into the show, Green narrates that “each of us is a living constellation of habits, desires, notions, memories,” then goes on to denote the twelve signs, with the camera cutting between the fellow who’s Taurus and the one who’s Gemini, and so on. This ends up having the effect of feeling both ponderous and rushed, as if there’d have needed to be more ambition, and more resources, to really make this work. Instead, we’re told what the connections are but not why: The reason that Taurus is Taurus (and so on) feels imposed as a way of nodding to the book, rather than like a piece of story framework that really fit this series. (Perhaps Catton’s serving among the executive producers enforced a fealty to the book’s concepts that isn’t serving the series, in the end.)
With the Zodiac concept lapsing into relative incoherence, there’s too little to buoy the story; the timelines concern the prelude to and legal repercussions of a crime, but neither holds as much interest as does the beauty of the setting. The creators of this show had an undercovered and striking period of history to cover, and that they tend to do so with clanging obviousness doesn’t elide the novelty. And while Green, who has done this sort of part more effectively elsewhere, is on auto-pilot, Hewson and, especially, Patel make for winning romantic leads whose affection we root for, even as it’s not always clear why. The astral explanation doesn’t satisfy us, but old-fashioned chemistry carries the day — a lesson one wishes “The Luminaries,” neither a coherent adaptation of a perhaps unadaptable novel nor a series that can fully stand on its own, had absorbed more fully.
“The Luminaries” premieres Sunday, Feb. 14 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.