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It’s an audacious undertaking to reimagine a story as vividly cemented in collective memory as Picnic at Hanging Rock. Not only was Peter Weir’s 1975 film one of the canonical works of the Australian New Wave, it planted the eerie mystery in the popular imagination with such enduring force that the fictional story first told in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel carved out a permanent place in national folklore. There are probably people who still believe it was based on actual events.
So hats off to the creators of this glossy six-part TV adaptation — debuting May 6 on Australia’s Foxtel and widely sold internationally, including to Amazon in the U.S. — for departing decisively from the original model with a bold plunge into 21st-century genre waters. Weir’s movie was a haunting tone poem about Victorian sexual repression colliding with unknowable Nature, channeled through a gauzy dreamscape of soft-focus haze and fluttering pan flutes. This new version, by contrast, is a simmering nightmare drenched in lush color, energetically shot with a propensity for psychologically unsettling Dutch angles, and powered by a surging contemporary score.
Based on the first two episodes premiered in the Berlin Film Festival’s international television sidebar, the series also feels very much of the moment in its treatment of young female characters not as delicate flowers, but as spirited individuals blazing with the internal fire of adolescence.
The iconic figure of Miranda Reid, for example, though still likened to a Botticelli angel, in newcomer Lily Sullivan’s magnetic performance is less an ethereal goddess than a coltish, free-spirited tomboy, toughened by growing up with four brothers on a cattle station. When a horny soldier gets insistent with her in the stables early on, she cools his aggressive ardor by driving a pitchfork through his foot.
The biggest transformation, however, is in Mrs. Hester Appleyard, the English headmistress of the girls’ boarding college isolated in Australian bushland. Weir cast Rachel Roberts as a fearsome battleship with hair tortured into a bulletproof bun, just waiting to unravel under the effects of alcoholism and encroaching madness. In this new incarnation, played by Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones, she’s a cat-eyed imposter, significantly younger and slightly unhinged from the start — in touch with her demons yet mindful that they don’t catch up with her. She seems to speak from the narrow escape of her own experience when she tells whiny Edith (Ruby Rees), who gets her first period on the day of the fateful picnic, “Bad timing will define your life.”
She’s also deliciously arch, surveying the girls’ wardrobe choices with a gaze worthy of Anna Wintour, while dropping the occasional morsel of tart commentary: “Yellow?! Interesting.”
From Mrs. Appleyard’s first appearance in chic widow’s weeds — stalked from behind by Garry Phillips’ slinky camera for several minutes as she sweeps through the empty mansion that will become her school — it’s clear this is a woman with nasty secrets. Purity and Refinement become the watchwords of her establishment, though her private thoughts about this place at “the arse end of the world” being ideal for a new beginning make it clear that her past wasn’t exactly squeaky-clean. Her lurid nightmares are another tip-off.
The central mystery is revealed in onscreen text right at the start of episode one, explaining how three students and a teacher vanished while on a Valentine’s Day excursion in 1900 at the brooding stone formation of the title, near Victoria’s Mount Macedon. So the series promises to dig deep over its six hours into the how and why of their disappearances, backtracking to watch events unfold from different perspectives, while sniffing around the various school staff and gossiping townsfolk, many of whom appear to have something to hide.
The question is whether writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison will take their cue from the lingering ambiguity on which Weir’s film ended or veer toward the more conclusive wrap-up of Lindsay’s excised final chapter. Certainly, the supernatural elements of that posthumously published ending, with its holes in time and space, would fit in with the occasional detours into surreal weirdness already evident in the opening episodes. There’s also early talk of the rock as an initiation site, presumably in aboriginal culture.
The appealing young actors etch distinctive characters, and director Larysa Kondracki and the writers ensure that the gone girls leave an indelible impression in their wake. The crisp white of their dresses against the darkening rock remains practically scorched into the viewer’s retina.
Missing along with Miranda are Irma Leopold, a pampered heiress played by Samara Weaving with a princess smile that tips frequently into a sneer, and smart Marion Quade (Madeleine Madden), the mixed-race illegitimate daughter of a High Court Justice. (While it’s doubtful that a part-aboriginal girl would have been so readily accepted in a Victorian-era school for young ladies, it hardly seems incongruous given how unapologetically attitudes, speech and appearances lean toward the contemporary in the series. Plus, we’ve established that Mrs. Appleyard can’t exactly afford to be a strict traditionalist.) Also missing is math and geography teacher Miss McCraw (Anna McGahan), last seen behaving in a manner out of character with her reputation for rational dependability.
The cast includes Yael Stone, back on home turf and doing a radical switch from her big-hearted Orange Is the New Black character. She plays deportment and Bible studies instructor Miss Lumley, a religious hysteric who doesn’t mind doing Miss Appleyard’s dirty work when it comes time to cane Miranda for truancy. The climate of sadistic punishment extends to Sara (Inez Curro), an orphan with a romantic Miranda fixation, her self-mutilation earning her additional scorn from Mrs. A. And the role of French teacher Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Lola Bessis), brimming with warm affection for her girls, appears destined to grow.
Outside the school, the chief focus is Mike Fitzhubert (Harrison Gilbertson), the visiting nephew of starchy British aristocrats, who appears to have fled scandal at Cambridge. Having followed the girls part of the way on the picnic day, mesmerized by Miranda’s air of absolute freedom, Mike becomes obsessed with finding them. He enlists help from his uncle’s easygoing coachman Albert (James Hoare), their scenes together rippling with homoerotic undertones. The script touches on the shifting view of class in the young colonial nation, notably when the local constable dismisses Mike’s help with the investigation, saying, “The gentry aren’t much use in these matters.”
While the visuals are unexpectedly sparing with the usual majestic landscape shots, the production values are sumptuous, with Edie Kurzer’s costumes in particular providing constant eye candy. This new Picnic has the expensive trappings of a prestige project, but it also isn’t afraid to embrace a wild, salacious, even trashy (in a good way) side that spices up the entertainment.
The youthful cast, the themes of adolescent sisterhood and sexuality, the twisty surprises and the liberal dose of horror tropes indicate that the core target audience is a generation that may have zero familiarity with the story. For the rest of us, it’s not going to displace Weir’s film as the definitive version, and in many ways it’s the polar opposite of the original’s transfixing restraint. But it’s a revitalizing fresh take that’s off to a fun start, and looks like it’s only going to get juicier.
Production companies: Freemantle Media Australia, Foxtel
Cast: Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, Madeleine Madden, Samara Weaving, Lola Bessis, Yael Stone, Inez Curro, Harrison Gilbertson, Ruby Rees, James Hoare, Philip Quast, Anna McGahan, Don Hany, Jonny Pasvolsky, Nicholas Hope
Director: Larysa Kondracki
Screenwriters: Beatrix Christian, Alice Addison, based on the novel by Joan Lindsay
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Series)
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