Shedding light on The Luminaries

I’ll start by saying that I really enjoyed the recent BBC dramatisation of Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries. It took me far too long to watch, mostly because of lockdown and not having the house to myself, but when I did get the opportunity I enjoyed this strange, compelling mix of mysticism and skull-duggery set in the gold-fields of Victorian New Zealand.

Of course, it helped that one of my favourite actors, Marton Csokas, had a starring role, but rest of the cast were worth watching too, especially Eve Hewson, Himesh Patel and Ewen Leslie (although is it just me, or does Eva Green’s voice grate after a while?)

I loved the astrological and mystical elements. The idea of astral twins seemed bonkers, but reminded me of books I read and loved as a kid, where a bond between characters stayed for life.

The frontier town setting seemed thoroughly authentic – lots of mud, lots of hurly-burly, lots of petty crime. The characters were a rum lot, mostly out for themselves and however many dollars they could screw out of everyone else, and it was great fun watching them stab each other in the back (or occasionally, shoot each other in the front). The whole thing was dark, mystical, compelling, dark, original… and, er, did I mention dark?

My single biggest criticism of the whole thing is that large sections were filmed in almost total darkness. So dark that a black cat in a coal cellar would have shone out like a beacon, and I wasn’t sure they even were filming, or had just pointed the cameras at a piece of black card and walked away. It was impossible to see what was going on, or who was speaking to who, for lengthy periods. Given that the whole story was told in a series of disjointed flashbacks where the timeline was never entirely clear, the lack of proper lighting just added to the confusion. The producers apparently wanted total authenticity but hey – even the Victorians had candles and lanterns, dammit.

It’s a real shame, because this could easily have been the best drama series of the year. As it is, I loved most of it, but didn’t enjoy sitting in a darkened room squinting at the TV screen trying to make out something… anything… in the gloom. I just wish those Luminaries had shed some light on themselves.

Oh, and null points to Google for their pictorial cast listing, which totally ‘disappears’ at least 3 actors of colour (Richard Te Are, Gary Young, and Yoson An) who all played an important part in the drama but don’t appear anywhere in the list of characters/actors. I had to dip into IMDb to remind myself who they were…


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