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'The Luminaries,' is Literally and Figuratively a Dark Story
February 14, 2021  | By David Hinckley

The filming is often as dark as the story in the new miniseries The Luminaries.

The Luminaries, a British/Irish series that aired last year across the pond, premieres here at 9:30 p.m. ET Sunday on Starz. It runs six episodes, and viewers should be prepared to feel tense and worried for most of them.

The Luminaries takes us to 1866 New Zealand, where a gold rush has turned that country's West Coast into the Kiwi version of America's notorious Wild West.

It's a boomtown full of hustlers looking to make a quick buck, and most of those bucks don't come from the gold that a lucky few have found in the soil and streams.

Most of it comes from the hastily created infrastructure, a loose network of bars, brothels, supply stores, and fast-talking men promising to lead new arrivals to a promised land of riches. Sign here, kid.

Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson, top) seems among the unlikeliest of arrivals in this world without rules since her appearance and demeanor border on elegant. Her circumstances do not. She's from London, traveling alone with minimal resources, and she plans to prospect for gold.

In the final minutes of the long voyage from England, she meets Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), a fellow fortune seeker. They hit it off in a brief conversation and make arrangements to meet once they are both settled into their Spartan lodgings.

It all seems like a plausible if potentially problematic adventure until they disembark and troubling things start happening.

Anna runs into Lydia Wells (Eva Green), an American who runs a late-night club for miners with a little gold to spend. Lydia seems to be the friend Anna will need, except it soon becomes clear that it makes sense not to trust anyone too quickly in this place.

Emery, meanwhile, misses his connection with Anna and wonders why. He, too, makes acquaintances, and life seems to go on, except for the aforementioned troubling things.

Part of Lydia's hustle, er, gig is fortune-telling, which she defines as understanding the unseen forces of life. She tells Anna about, for instance, "astral twins," two unrelated people born at the same moment who are thereby destined by the cosmos to share a common fate.

While Lydia introduces astrology and the ethereal secrets of the universe into The Luminaries, the story doesn't focus on the mystical. It's rooted, happily, in its characters flesh-and-blood lives, which are perhaps a bit more complicated than most lives. Sailing to New Zealand to join a Victorian-era gold rush can have that effect.

While things, in general, don't go anywhere close to how Anna hoped they might, she doesn't reach a truly dangerous flashpoint until Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie) is discovered dead with an unconscious Anna nearby. We might mention that Crosbie is Lydia's husband.

While that situation sounds simple enough, we viewers do not get there by a direct route. The Luminaries takes us through a seemingly unending stream of flash-forwards, flashbacks, and time shifts, many filmed in near-darkness before we all get from troubling Point A to dire Point B.

Hewson's performance keeps us interested enough to stick with it, fortunately, and Green plays these sorts of ominous characters beautifully.

When we finally get a reasonably coherent picture of what's going on, The Luminaries settles into a murder/conspiracy mystery wherein the fate of a sympathetic character dangles in the balance for a long time.

While the otherworldly elements keep us slightly off-balance and add a bit of spice, familiar human traits from conniving to splashes of kindness drive the story forward.

The Luminaries is adapted by Eleanor Catton from her prize-winning 2013 novel of the same name. Fans of the book will soon note that the movie has a far different focus, with a modest subplot elevated to the center of the tale.

It's also possible the original story is playing out, as well, but that the lighting is so dim we just can't see it.

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