PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK ****
Directed by Michael Rymer, Larysa Kondracki, Amanda Brotchie. Starring Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, Lola Bessis, Harrison Gilbertson, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madde, Ruby Rees, Inez Curro. Australia 2018 6 x 50 minute episodes Certificate: 15
Released on DVD from Acorn Media. Out now.
Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel “Picnic At Hanging Rock” was adapted into one of the modern cinema’s most beguiling mysteries by Peter Weir in the mid-1970’s, a movie that retains its ability to haunt and provoke discussion despite an original score that suffers from the subsequent overdose of panpipes in film soundtracks and Woolworths compilation tapes. Its suggestive, portentous depiction of Victorian civilisation pitted against the bush became the most celebrated of the cycle of Australian films about humans at the mercy of Mother Nature, a trend that dovetailed with the generally gaudier American eco-horror sub-genre.
By necessity, this six-part mini-series fleshes out the characters and backstories that were either absent or inferred in the Weir movie. It is (naturally) more explicit in terms of sexuality and apparently other-worldly forces, with characters seen spinning wildly like in a contemporary supernatural horror film, on-screen sexual experimentation and overt use of decaying / death imagery. Fantasy sequences, dreamy slo-mo and sun-kissed flights of fancy intertwine with a sense of growing alarm and hysteria, heightened by the use of increasingly canted angles and an often showy style that nods to (amongst other things) the montages of 1990’s American high school movies.
“Heaven knows what went on there…All great rocks have their stories”.
The series has a considerably more prominent role for Mrs Appleyard than Weir’s film (in which she was played by Rachel Roberts). This results in an impressive multi-layered showcase for Natalie Dormer as the mysterious widow with a secretive past, who becomes headmistress of a strict boarding school near Victoria at the turn of the 20th century. The regime is strict and oppressive – Appleyard frostily oversees regular canings – and the serialised format allows for greater depth in the depiction of the young women under her command, including Samara Weaving’s heiress, Lily Sullivan’s nature-loving tomboy and Inez Curro’s maltreated orphan. As in the previous incarnation, the girls’ visit to Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day (after being suitably warned about the dangers of ants and poisonous snakes) result in three pupils and one teacher vanishing without a trace.
“I’ve met your true father…he has horns and eyes that look the wrong way…”
By episode two, the series begins escalating the Gothic and supernatural elements. A search party talk of ghosts, the teachers blame themselves while people discuss the possibility of spells, an animal is nailed to a door and characters wander around in the dark with gas lamps at the eerily mist-enshrouded school. The juxtaposition of fairy tale references (Rapunzel), grim reality (domestic violence) and satirical period detail (the censoring of classical statues) keeps it engaging right up to the deliberately (infuriatingly?) ambiguous ending. The hypnotic charge of the Weir movie is impossible to recreate, and the series finds its own identity while still capturing the sense of a monumental force at work far beyond our ability to understand:
“The dark gets in…it gets everywhere…”
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