New TV is a little bit thin on the ground right now. Thanks to COVID-19, filming on new productions slowed to a halt over three months ago, which is why series that you're sure came out a few years ago have been back on your television during primetime slots. With the notable exception of Michaela Coel's brilliant I May Destroy You, we've pretty much run out of TV, and production on new film and television is only just beginning to get going again.
Which explains the excitement for The Luminaries, the new, big budget period drama that's coming to BBC One on Sunday nights. Based on the 2013 Man Booker prize-winning novel of the same name by Eleanor Catton, the series premiered in New Zealand back in May, with filming taking place in 2018. If you're wondering about the long timeline, then you haven't seen a physical copy of the book, which clocks in at a hefty 848 pages. Making this series was not a light undertaking: it took Catton five years to write the book and a further seven to adapt it for the screen.
Set in 1860s New Zealand, back when it was still a British colony (after Britain assumed ownership of land from the Māori people, massacred many and introduced new diseases which decimated the Māori population to around 40% of its pre-19th century level), The Luminaries is set against the backdrop of the West Coast Gold Rush, when fortune-seekers headed in their thousands to the west coast of the South Island, keen to strike it lucky.
The Luminaries unfolds over two separate timelines. In 1865, we join Anna (Eve Hewson aka Bono's daughter) and Emery (Himesh Patel) as their boat journey from London finally reaches New Zealand. Both are wide-eyed and excited about their new beginnings and keen to make their fortunes prospecting. The day they land also happens to be their birthday which, as we later find out, makes them 'astral twins' meaning they share a common destiny. Once in New Zealand they separate: Emery finds a companion in former convict Francis Carver, while Anna's fate lands in the hands of the beautiful but malicious fortune-teller Lydia (Eva Green).
The later timeline, set in 1866, makes it clear that Anna's and Emery's plans have not gone as they hoped. A local politician finds a dishevelled and opium-addled Anna, an unconscious Māori man and an unidentified corpse in a cottage. Anna, a prostitute and in far worse physical condition than she was a year earlier, cannot remember what happened. She is thrown into jail, leaving viewers to wonder what terrible things could have happened in the interim months.
For those who read and loved the book, this television adaptation may feel very different indeed. At just six episodes long, every detail of the novel was never going to fit. Catton has described cutting scenes from the book as "heartbreaking" and now that her work is done, she says that "the show reinvents the novel so throughly" that when she opens the novel, "it feels very alien and even a little frightening." She estimates she wrote 200 drafts of the first episode alone.
The first episode promises much: this is big budget stuff. Eva Green is magnetic and her luxuriously bohemian wardrobe and richly decorated home are worth tuning in for alone. Her acting, as always, is impeccable and Lydia's bewitching authority induces both a delicious thrill and a creeping sense of unease. The setting, too, plays a marvellous part in encouraging an unsettled atmosphere. Dunedin, the Wild West town in which Anna and Emery arrive from London, is full of hard drinkers, fortune-seekers and criminal dealings, but it is under a spell. Everything in it revolves around gold, from the conmen performing tricks with it to giant chunks of fool's gold for sale in shop windows to the rumours, whispered around taverns and boarding houses, of big hauls of treasure out west. There's a dangerous mysticism holding the town captive and it all stems from the precious shiny metal lying hidden in the earth beneath the characters' feet.
The Luminaries does initially feel a little slow and despite making for a dramatic opening to the first episode, the mystery of the dead body in 1866 isn't immediately compelling. Viewers in New Zealand (who are midway through the series) have called the complex storyline confusing and difficult to follow. However those who are enjoying it maintain that, just like the intricate narrative of the book, the beauty of this show lies in the detail. Essentially, this is not one to watch while browsing Depop on your phone.
At the end of the first episode it is possible that the 'unknowns' are just too great to feel properly involved; perhaps this will change as the series unravels and more becomes clear. But as the hour draws to a close, with little understanding of any of the characters (it's an incredibly large cast and even Anna and Emery remain near-total mysteries), it is tough to feel emotionally invested.
Nevertheless one holds high hopes for The Luminaries, not least because of the clear effort that was so lovingly and exhaustingly poured into the series, and because the book is so beloved. Most of all, though, we need The Luminaries to work because, well, there's hardly anything else out there to watch at all.
The Luminaries is on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 21st June.