‘The Luminaries’, premiering June 4 on Starzplay in the UAE, tells an ambitious tale of fate, fortune, murder, revenge — and the two star-crossed lovers at the centre of it all.
The six-episode TV series, based on the popular novel of the same name, takes place in the 19th century on the Wild West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, with a narrative that switches between past and present.
We meet protagonist Anna Wetherell as she voyages from Britain to New Zealand in search of a new life. By chance, she comes across the charming Emery Staines and the two take a liking to each other.
But brothel madam Lydia Wells (Eva Green) has other plans and Anna’s journey takes a complicated turn as she enters into prostitution and addiction.
Adapted for the small screen by novelist Eleanor Catton, who published her eponymous book in 2013, the series stars Eve Hewson and Himesh Patel as the two romantic leads.
“At the beginning, we don’t know anything about these characters and where they come from,” Patel, of ’Yesterday’ fame, told Gulf News over a Zoom call in April. “We just meet them as they arrive in New Zealand and everything unfolds before them.”
Irish actress Hewson, the daughter of rock star Bono, had the tough task of bringing Anna to life.
Part of the challenge was getting right the mindset — and demeanour — of a 19th century character.
“Just even physical things, like the way that you sit — women wouldn’t cross their legs, or if you saw women’s ankle, it was basically like seeing a woman’s breast … You have to know what you’re doing, because you don’t want to mess up. You don’t want somebody watching the show, like, ‘She would never have done that at the time!’” said 28-year-old Hewson.
Patel, 29, had to “consider a completely different context” when playing Emery, including the “sociological aspects” that would impact his reality.
“You kind of have to transport yourself back in time in a lot of ways, which is fairly interesting,” said Patel.
Neither actor had heard of the Booker Prize-winning book before signing on. But both felt like they’d missed out on something obvious.
“I’d said to numerous family members and friends, ‘I’m thinking about doing the show in New Zealand,’ and everyone knew what the book was. I realised that it was this huge book that I just haven’t come across,” admitted Hewson.
“Everyone’s reaction afterwards is like, ‘Oh, yeah, ‘The Luminaries?’’ And I was like, ‘Now I feel like an idiot.’ Then when I read it, I was like, ‘How did I not read this before?’” added Patel.
‘IT’S YOUR HEART, YOUR GUTS’
The complex plot of this mystical murder mystery thickens with the introduction of Green’s madam Lydia.
“The whole story was very exotic,” said Green. “You know, we’ve never seen the Gold Rush in New Zealand at the end of the 19th century onscreen. I didn’t even know it had happened.”
When the French actress read the first two episodes, she thought they were brilliantly written and with strong characters.
“[Lydia] was very cool, ahead of her time, smart, independent [and] a survivor,” said Green. “She’s playing all these different parts, but it can also be tricky because you want to remain believable. It’s always a challenge to play somebody who is acting. You don’t want to do too much. So, it was a fine line.”
(She added that “also, maybe, the American accent is something that is not very natural for me, so I had to work on it with a coach.”)
Green, 39, has been known to dabble in fantasy — whether in ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ or ‘The Dark Shadows’ — but suggests the “mystical” elements at play in ‘The Luminaries’ are more subtle, as far as her character goes.
“There’s a real arc to this Lydia, she starts off as being very power hungry [and] driven. And then things don’t go as planned and she freaks out and you discover the human, which is always good for an actor to play. My character is into astrology, but it is really a science,” she said.
Is astrology something Green personally believes in?
“I completely believe in it, but I didn’t really understand the science until I did some work on this project. It is very precise, very complicated, and it makes so much sense. I wish we learned something about it in school, actually, I think we would be more open to what’s going on to the universe, and maybe be less narrow-minded in some way,” she said.
Preparing for the role, it didn’t matter to Green that her character existed in a faraway time.
“Building a character is the same because it’s your heart, your guts. It’s really with the help of an amazing costume designer and set designer that the actor will be able to sell that it’s happening in those times. And here we had [Bafta-winning] Edward Gibbon, who is so brilliant,” said Green.
While the style was “very rigid” in those days, they wanted Lydia to be unconventional.
“Even her hair is looser, it’s not completely straight and boring. There’s a bit of life and a bit of oo la la,” said the actress.
TURNING A PAGE
The TV series does not follow the precise trajectory of the book, and in particular, thrusts Anna forward as its protagonist — something that Hewson commends.
“I really like that they took her character and made her the centrepiece, not just for selfish reasons, but I think there’s something that Ellie [author Catton] was trying to say about women at that time, and women in general,” said Hewson.
The actress continued: “It’s interesting that we can look at a story about a prostitute in a period piece, but for some reason, there’s not that many stories being told about prostitutes now. There’s some sort of psychological disconnect, where we can’t accept that that’s still happening today. There are so many women who are trying to move country or get on a ship to change their life and they come up against these kinds of challenges.”
Being the daughter of a massive entertainer, does Hewson ever get words of advice from her father (and U2 frontman) Bono, directly or indirectly?
“Oh, I get both,” quipped Hewson. “It’s great, actually, when I have a question or a concern or an issue, he is fantastic [to] give me any advice. I couldn’t tell you one specific thing other than he has a joke where he says, ‘Just don’t eat anything bigger than your head,’ which really isn’t a piece of advice.”
English actor Patel, who shot to public attention in 2019 with his debut feature film ‘Yesterday,’ a fictional tale integrated with the music of the Beatles, called his journey thus far a “wild ride”.
Has he heard from Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr about it?
“Not personally, but I hear that they’ve watched it. Apparently Ringo’s seen it, I think he’s okay with it. Paul McCartney was on a chat show, one of the American ones, and he said that he’d watched it — but I’ve not spoken to either of them personally,” revealed Patel.
‘The Luminaries’ weaves together an intricate tale and Hewson thinks there’s a perfect space for it.
“There’s a huge appetite for period dramas, romance, adventure. Think of the success of ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Game of Thrones’. I think we sort of live in that realm of fantasy and romance and plot twists and adventure. A lot of people will enjoy it,” said Hewson.
The series is notable for its stunning landscapes and lush New Zealand greenery.
“We shot in Auckland, mainly, in a studio for most of it. We shot [at] Bethells Beach and then we shot on a farm for a long time. We built up most of Hokitika. Then, we went to the South Island for about a week at the end of the shoot,” recalled Hewson.
While they travelled the well-worn tracks of the past to tell this twisty story, the future is perhaps not as certain. The film industry has largely been put on hold during the ongoing pandemic, and the actors have found other ways to occupy themselves.
“I’ve been getting quite good at baking bread,” said Patel. “But I’m running out of flour, so there’s only so far that’s gonna get me. I thought I was unique, apart from then the second day everywhere ran out of flour, and I realised I was one of about 5 million people baking bread.”
Asked what she has lined up next, Green’s answer was candid.
“Well, I don’t know, it might be the end of the world,” she said. “I’m okay. I’m just promoting ‘The Luminaries’, and everything is a bit uncertain for now.”
Don’t miss it!
‘The Luminaries’ airs on Starzplay in the UAE on June 4.