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The Luminaries set to light up Sunday night TV

By David Porter

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Based on Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, the long-awaited six-part series The Luminaries comes to BBC One on Sunday.

An epic adventure mystery based on the Man Booker prize-winning novel of the same name, it is set on the wild West coast of New Zealand’s South Island at the height of the 1860s gold rush.

The Luminaries tells an intricately woven, suspenseful tale of love, murder, magic, and revenge.

The story begins in 1865. Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) has travelled to New Zealand to forge a new life.

On the last day of her voyage, a romantic first encounter with the radiant Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) fills her with great expectations for what lies ahead.

But the scheming fortune-teller Lydia Wells (Eva Green) has other ideas for Anna, and lays a trap to ensure that the planned rendezvous between the young lovers never takes place.

Deceived, swindled, and betrayed, Anna’s fortunes begin to fall.

She is drawn into an elaborate plot of blackmail, involving opium, gold, shipwreck, fraud, and false identity, which ultimately finds her framed for murder and fighting for her life.

But the bond between these star-crossed lovers is more than mere affinity.

Anna and Emery are what is known as ‘astral twins’: they were born at the very same instant, and under the very same sky, which means that they share a single destiny.

When Emery vanishes without a trace, leaving Anna without an alibi for a murder she did not commit, the noose of the plot begins to tighten around her.

Faced with the impossible, she must ask: do we make our fortunes, or does fortune make us?

Eve Hewson who plays Anna Wetherell in The Luminaries explains more:

Who is Anna Wetherell?

Anna Wetherell is a mysterious character who you meet as she arrives in New Zealand during the gold rush.You don’t really know anything about her, and you never really find out her history or why she chose to travel to New Zealand or what she’s possibly running from. She meets Emery, gets off the ship and then all hell breaks loose.

How do Anna and Emery meet?

Anna meets Emery on her first day in New Zealand, which happens to be her birthday. She doesn’t tell Emery it’s her birthday, but he tells her that it’s his. They have this beautiful, divine and deep connection. It’s like love at first sight, on crack. That scene really drives the entire story. Anna and Emery have this immediate interest in each other, but then the minute Anna steps off the boat, Lydia Wells (Eva Green’s character) comes in and tears them apart. The rest of the story is about them trying to find each other and rekindle their relationship. Anna and Emery are pulled towards each other for reasons they can’t really explain but eventually understand the bigger picture and why they feel so connected with each other.

The planets play a big part in Eleanor Catton’s story. Emery Staines is the sun and Anna Wetherell is the moon. How did you relate to that from a character perspective?

To be honest, not a lot! I don’t really know anything about the planets! I’m not a big astrology person and I don’t know if I believe in it. I read my horoscope every now and then just to see if I’m going to get lucky but that’s about it. That whole aspect of the story added a beautiful sort of imagery to their love story, but in terms of pulling character traits from the moon - I don’t know if that’s possible!

Gold plays a huge role within this story...

Every character is driven and motivated by gold in some way. In The Luminaries, gold really highlights human greed and the lengths they’re prepared to go to get what they want, whether it’s fame or wealth or love or freedom. Gold represents different things to different characters. What’s interesting about Anna is that she’s the only person who doesn’t really want anything to do with the gold.

So Anna didn’t travel to New Zealand for gold?

Emery Staines travelled to New Zealand to dig for gold. Anna says that she did, but I don’t believe that. I think there are other reasons why she wanted to start a new life in New Zealand on her own and why she took that journey. It’s a big deal to want to get so far away from the place that you came from. I think that she was running from something. To me, Anna represents the consequence of when greed comes into play and people take something that they don’t own.

What is the relationship between Anna and Lydia?

Anna has travelled to New Zealand to become someone else and Lydia Wells represents the person that she really wants to be. Lydia has money, she has a wealth of knowledge and she’s this beautiful put-together woman. Anna tries to become like her but Lydia plays off that and uses Anna’s eagerness to manipulate her. That said, in its own way, Anna and Lydia’s relationship is one of the main love stories of the show. They share this beautiful and bizarre love/hate relationship. Eva (Green) and I liked to joke that it’s the real love story of the show.

It’s unusual for a novelist to adapt their own work for screen, as Eleanor Catton has here. What did that bring to the production?

Eleanor Catton wrote the book and the script. Anna Wetherell isn’t a prominent character within the book, in fact she’s hardly mentioned, and the story focusses on Moody and all the other luminaries. But in the screenplay, Eleanor has addressed those characters from a distance and has chosen to re-tell the story through Anna’s perspective. I thought that was really smart and interesting. Fans of the book can have a new take on their beloved story so it’s not just a direct, ‘live action’ version of their imagination. It’s something different that I think the fans will find exciting.

How would you describe The Luminaries to someone who hadn’t heard of it before?

It’s a story about a young woman who goes to New Zealand during the gold rush in the 1860s and how that world corrupts her and forces her to confront who she is. It’s a murder mystery, that at its core is trying to find out what happened to Crosbie Wells and why this woman is getting framed.

It’s not just a period piece - it’s so much more. It’s a beautiful story about all these different characters during a time that so many of us know so little about. It’s about how these characters manipulate each other, what happens to Anna, how she stands up for herself and eventually gets revenge. It’s also a love story. I like to think of it like Gaslight meets The Girl On The Train with Titanic sprinkled on top. That’s how I describe it to people. It makes sense to me!

So you wouldn't describe this as a period piece?

It is a period drama but with more magic and adventure than you’d expect. It has a touch of Game Of Thrones or something in it as it’s more heightened than a regular period drama. The amazing thing about books is that they can stretch your imagination and bend genres and Eleanor (Catton) clearly has this vast imagination and really didn’t hold back in terms of how she wanted to tell the story.

I think we have honoured that with the series. I wouldn’t know how to describe it and put it into a package because it lives on its own and that’s why people will like it. It’s not what you’re used to seeing. It’s got this extra touch of magic to it.

How did the costumes help you get into character?

Being in a corset changes everything! I tried to have a distant relationship with the costumes because I think Anna has a distant relationship with her clothes too. She’s always dressed up like some sort of toy and shoved out the door. That’s not who she wants to be and I see her as more of a tomboy - Eleanor describes her as feral at one point in the book.

Anna has this womanly side to her she’s not connected with even though everybody else is. The corset and the crinoline really helped because it creates a literal cage around the body that made me feel more restrained than I wanted to feel, which felt accurate for the character. Edward Gibbon did an amazing job with the costumes.

What has it been like filming and living in New Zealand?

It’s been amazing. I love New Zealand. It’s been really nice meeting people whose grandparents or great-grandparents got off the boat in Hokitika or Dunedin. Everyone here has a connection to the history of this country and that’s been helpful to understand Anna’s journey. I love it, I love New Zealand.

What has been a highlight for you through this process?

Getting to see Eva Green work was a real treat because I’m such a big fan of hers. I really took a lot of pleasure in watching her work every day. She embodied the role of Lydia Wells it in a way that I couldn’t have imagined before. She made it very easy for me.

What do you hope audiences will take from The Luminaries?

I hope that they enjoy it. I hope that they fall in love with the characters, get invested in the story and they want to take the journey with us and that they keep watching. I’m confident they will because the writing is so brilliant and it looks really beautiful. I’m really proud of it.

The Luminaries will begin on Sunday, June 21 at 9pm on BBC One.

Episode two will follow on Monday, June 22at 9pm, and the six-part series will continue on Sunday nights thereafter.

In addition, the full series will be made available on BBC iPlayer immediately after the first episode airs.

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