Director: Michael Rymer, Larysa Kondracki, Amanda Brotchie
Screenplay: Beatrix Christian, Alice Addison
Based On A Novel By: Joan Lindsay
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, Lola Bessis, Harrison Gilbertson, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden, Inez Curro
Duration: 360 minutes
BBFC Certification: 15
Picnic at Hanging Rock came to Joan Lindsey in a dream. She dreamt the whole plot in successive episodes, over the span of two weeks, in which she awoke every morning to feverishly scribble the contents of her dreams onto whatever paper she could get ahold of.
The 2017 adaptation perfectly manages to capture that spirit of dazed intensity which permeates all six episodes of the mini-series. The show is full of dreamlike imagery and sequences filled with nightmare spectres, always letting the viewer teeter on the edge of reality and making them question their perception. The camera work is quite deliberately discordant; full of odd angles and trembling shots that make you unusually aware of the intrusiveness of peering in on the characters at their most secretive moments. For a show that revolves so closely around watching, being watched, seeing but not seeing, this is a wonderful way of using the medium to convey the point.
The narrative centres on mysterious and strict headmistress Widow Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), her dark secret that seems to have followed her around the world, and her diverse population of students and teachers, all enigmas in their own right. On Valentine’s Day, in the year 1900, the school embarks on a picnic trip to Hanging Rock, the old monolith surrounded by many myths and legends. Four of the characters do not make it back. Their mysterious disappearance spurs the whole town into a desperate frenzy, and one by one the school’s secrets are laid bare.
The show is excellent at feeding the details of the mystery to you slowly but perpetually, enough to keep you guessing and wondering but never so little as to frustrate you into giving up. Each of the entangled story lines is wholly engrossing and the pacing of the script works perfectly in their favour.
There is a host of fascinating characters that populate the world of Picnic at Hanging Rock. The show dives into their inner lives beautifully from episode to episode, slowly unraveling what drives them. From headstrong tomboy Miranda and the freedom she seeks, to Irma Leopold, who resents the gilded cage she has been trapped in—all of them grapple with the rules and expectations of society in different but equally engaging ways. Although their narratives are clearly marked by the time period in which the story is set, it is not hard to find mirrors in the present for each of the character’s struggles. The barriers Marion Quade encounters in Australia due to her indigenous heritage for example are very topical even today.
Something unique to this particular adaptation is its approach to openly addressing what was previously only subtext. It makes explicit the gay content which was only hinted at or barely suggested in the original book, such as with the characters of Mike and Albert, or Marion and Miss McCraw. “I don’t want to live in the inbetweens,” Miranda says passionately at one point, and it seems like a direct reproach of writers who only ever let gay characters live in the margins of their story. Maybe that was understandable at the turn of the 19th century, but it seems unnecessary and outdated today.
Perhaps the main character of the show however is the Australian bush itself.
The show manages to give nature an incredible screen presence, making it simultaneously foreboding and entirely unconcerned. The Hanging Rock clearly has immense power, conveyed beautifully by the discordant tone that underlies every scene and which seems to swallow every other sound, but while it is dangerous it is not actively malicious. “Like ants,” Irma Leopold remarks as she looks out at the rest of the picnic from above, a perfect description of the significance of the human characters to the ancient place they inhabit.
The images really seem to come to life when the characters are allowed to escape the confines of the school. Colour blooms around them and the white of their dresses becomes almost blinding in its intensity whenever we are treated to flashbacks of the picnic. In contrast the interior of the school is wonderfully bleak and muted, a reflection of the woman who runs it.
Natalie Dormer as Widow Appleyard is definitely one of the stand-out performances of the show and her portrayal is wonderfully chilling and multi-faceted. There really is not a single bad apple among the bunch though, and each actor has their moment to shine. A particularly lovely surprise was Yael Stone’s Dora Lumley, who managed to breathe such realism into a character who otherwise could have easily turned into a caricature.
Another point in the show’s favour is the incredible costuming. Each character’s clothing conveys their personality perfectly, but even apart from that the beautiful period dresses could be a major draw in themselves.
They are emblematic of the care that has quite obviously been put into the making of Picnic at Hanging Rock—each detail is carefully orchestrated to contribute to the overall whole, and there is not a single shot in the show that felt wasted. The symbolism and imagery which is slowly built from episode to episode comes together in a climax so satisfying that it quite literally took my breath away. It feels like a show that is going to yield new realisations with every rewatch, and I cannot wait to relive it as soon as possible.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is out now on DVD in the UK, released by Acorn Media. The 2-disc set includes extensive behind-the-scenes interviews with cast and crew.