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'The Luminaries is not what you are used to seeing... it's got magic'

It may be set 150 years ago, but The Luminaries will still resonate with audiences today, according to its cast. Gemma Dunn finds out more

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Paolo Rotondo as Aubert Gascoigne and Eve Hewson as Anna Wetherell

Paolo Rotondo as Aubert Gascoigne and Eve Hewson as Anna Wetherell

Press Association Images

Paolo Rotondo as Aubert Gascoigne and Eve Hewson as Anna Wetherell

It took Eleanor Catton five years to write The Luminaries - and another seven to adapt the novel for the screen. Set in 19th-century New Zealand, the 832-page hit tells the story of a prospector who travels to the West Coast settlement of Hokitika to try to make his fortune on nearby goldfields.

And billed as "an intricately woven, suspenseful tale of love, murder, magic and revenge", the epic adventure mystery - Catton's second text to date - certainly has the trappings of a primetime BBC drama - even if it has been a long time coming.

"As a novelist, I tend to write only one draft, constantly circling back to the beginning and refining as I go," says the New Zealander (34). "Once I reach the end, the book is done, whereas screenwriting couldn't be more different. By the time we started shooting in late 2018, I had written perhaps 200 drafts of the first episode alone and, throughout the shoot, the scripts continued to change.

"So many different kinds of artistry and expertise go into the making of a television series and every frame of the finished product shows the talent and efforts of hundreds of people in hundreds of ways. It's far greater than anything any one person's imagination."

Set at the height of the 1860s Gold Rush, the six-part drama follows defiant young adventurer Anna Wetherell, who has sailed from Britain to New Zealand to begin a new life.

It's there she meets the radiant Emery Staines, an encounter that triggers a strange kind of magic that neither can explain, but which likely has something to do with scheming fortune-teller Lydia Wells. As the duo fall in love, driven together and apart by fateful coincidence, these star-crossed lovers begin to wonder: do we make our fortunes, or do our fortunes make us?

While Casino Royale's Eva Green stars as American fortune parlour manager Wells, Robin Hood's Eve Hewson and former EastEnders' star Himesh Patel take on the parts of the hopeful British arrivals in Wetherell and Staines.

"Anna Wetherell is a mysterious character," muses Hewson (28). "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. She meets Emery, gets off the ship and then all hell breaks loose."

"And, by the time Emery gets to New Zealand, he's somewhat of an adventurer," Patel (29) adds. "As the story goes on, his optimism and radiance is challenged, but he has a purpose which carries him through and takes him on some really interesting journeys.

"Claire McCarthy, our director, described him to me as having a poet's soul, which is something I've taken and carried with me."

Meanwhile "Lydia is fun to play because she's always game; she's a gambler, she's adventurous, but she's also a survivor," states Parisian actor Green (39), who spent a month perfecting her American accent before shooting began.

"Like many survivors, there are no rules - she feels she's above the law. She can have whatever she desires, no matter the cost, so she's quite naughty and she's completely blinded by greed. She is a baddie."

The trio is joined by an ensemble of talent, including Ewen Leslie as Crosbie Wells, Marton Csokas as Wells's co-conspirator Francis Carve, Erik Thomson, Benedict Hardie, Yoson An and newcomer Richard Te Are.

Corsets, crinoline, elaborate sets: The Luminaries serves its genre well, but it's far from your run-of-the-mill period drama.

"It is a period drama, but with more magic and adventure than you'd expect," Hewson reasons. "It has a touch of Game of Thrones or something in it; it's more heightened than a regular period drama.

"The amazing thing about books is that they can stretch your imagination and bend genres. Eleanor clearly has this vast imagination and didn't hold back in terms of how she wanted to tell the story.

"I think we've 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."

"We've never seen a period drama about the gold rush in New Zealand, but I think people just want to be swept away by the story; it's the story that really matters," says Green.

"They want to have love in the story and have an adventure. I think if it's a period or not, it has to speak to us - it has to be human."

On that note, just what do they hope audiences will take from it? "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," says Hewson.

The Luminaries, BBC One, Sunday, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph