The Man Booker prize-winning novel makes its way to our screens courtesy of BBC and TVNZ, but does it make the transition unscathed? Linda Burgess reviews.
Oh god, wild seas. A sailing ship – ah, so it’s the olden days – all creaking wood tossed on those heaving seas, the moon a ghostly galleon, with the skeleton of a ruined ship placed suggestively on the shore to the right. Wild sea, wild times and dark, dark, dark, so dark that a person watching it as a screener on the laptop can’t quite see what’s actually going on. Someone’s been shot, or stabbed, or both, they’re on land so is it now or then or later and that could be blood on her bodice, but no – it’s gold. Gold?
So much symbolism, so difficult to take it all in, but thank god, the sun is shining through the porthole, the sea is now millpond calm, and there’s the most beautiful young woman peering from the top deck at a young man who’s conked out on the deck below. She’s rather beautifully clean and groomed for someone who’s just done the voyage out, especially when she explains to the handsome young man quietly gathering his wits about him that she’s been in, I guess, steerage, while he’s actually had a cabin, he was fore and she was aft, and this is why they haven’t met. She’s also usefully explaining it to us, because some of us are already thinking, surely they’d have met some time over the last 6 or 8 storm-tossed weeks? Oh dammit, if only they had. Anyway, beautiful woman (Anna Wetherell, played by the exquisite Eve Hewson) has now met fetching fellow who’s not only very handsome but also educated, evidenced by his quoting Coleridge at length when an albatross is sighted. He is Emery Staines, played by Himish Patel. One moment he’s lying on the deck, next there’s just a wet shape – was he real or not? – then phew, he’s right beside her.
Being educated, he’s the type of character who would know that this TV series is an adaptation of The Luminaries, which won our own Eleanor Catton the Man Booker Prize. And also that she has written this screen version, which is fortunate because the book is famous for its complex structure based around the zodiac. This structure would be terminally difficult to do on screen so the only person who should’ve been let loose on it was the person who’d wrangled it into shape the first time round. She’s allowed to change it as she sees fit, and this is how it should be.
I came to this TV series without having read the book, which I thought a shame, but even given lockdown I didn’t have enough time to buy it – anyway, I was boycotting Amazon – then read its 800+ pages. So I watched it as it should be watched; it’s its own beast.
They’ve landed now and Emery has given Anna the address of the hotel he’s staying at which would’ve been great if only moments later we hadn’t seen her sign her name with a cross. Oh God she can’t read, which means she’s going to give the piece of paper to another extremely beautiful woman, Lydia, who can read the written word but who can also read an innocent, useful victim when she sees one and from hereon in Anna is pretty much done for. That virginal glow that she’s kept intact all the way from Mother England is replaced by those smudged moody eyes that beautiful women get when things go wrong.
It’s back inside to the dark too, and I’ve got the screen on full brightness but it doesn’t help. Hokitika’s pubs, rooming houses and prisons in the 1860s were dark; get used to it. Get used to recurring motifs as well: gold or pounamu? What’s worth more? Abuse of minorities – the colonised Maori, the racially abused Chinese – is done so casually that its cruelness is made still clearer. Abuse of opioids. Love, especially the complicated, doomed kind – it’s no coincidence that Emery’s chucking references to Romeo and Juliet into the mix before too long – friendship, deceit, malevolence, mischief, coincidence, fate, they’re all there, and every now and then Lydia does something vaguely to do with fortunes and birthdays, or gold planets spin, just to remind us that that was crucial in the book.
I really liked it. It somehow fits the moment, when we don’t really want drama set in the far-fetched present. Anything in an office, say, just makes the viewer fret that they’re standing too close – don’t kiss her! He coughed! The 1860s in New Zealand, the West Coast swarming with gold-diggers of all kinds, the coming together of disparate people who want to fill their pockets, the casual acceptance of death, the lack of vaccinations so just go for it, is strangely comforting.
I’ve watched half the episodes and it’s sort of changing direction at mid-point, which is interesting, and as far as I’m aware – it could’ve happened in a darkened room and I may have missed it – we still don’t have many backstories. We get to know a bit more about Lydia’s complicated set-up, but it’s Anna I want to know about. Where’s she from? I know it was common enough at the time, but why can’t she read and write, a fact which is crucial to the plot? Why has she got on a ship in London and sailed to West Coast New Zealand? Why is she so damned unlucky? And why did someone have their passport stolen in the 1860s when they still hadn’t even been invented?
As Emery may well say, before his time is up and he’s still channelling Shakespeare, All that glitters is not gold. With a nod to the original novel he may well opine that the fault lies not with the stars but with ourselves that we are underlings. That there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in Horatio’s philosophy. I suggest that if you’re happy to be confused just a bit for a while – and you may never be! – you’ll watch this with a reasonable amount of pleasure. There’s just the right amount of ambivalence about who’s the goodies and baddies. There’s good acting, not just from two extremely beautiful women. Great settings, even if not enough was spent on lighting. And let’s face it, in literature violent delights often have violent ends. And it was filmed here. What’s not to like?
The first episode of The Luminaries screens tonight on TVNZ1 at 8:30 and weekly thereafter. All six episodes drop tonight on TVNZ on Demand.