Picnic at Hanging Rock

It takes a bold decision to reimagine Picnic at Hanging Rock for the screen.

Peter Weir’s seminal 1975 film is so revered as to be untouchable. FremantleMedia now offers up a 6 part drama designed for a binge TV audience, arriving in an era of #metoo and empowered female stories. As it happens Joan Lindsay’s 1967 drama is rich in female characters and women behind the camera in its Foxtel adaptation.

Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) plays widower Mrs. Appleyard, who purchases a mansion to run a 1900 private boarding college. There she has four teachers Miss McCraw (Anna McGahan), Mrs. Valange (Sibylla Budd), Dora Lumley (Yael Stone) and Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers (Lola Beiss).

Mrs. Appleyard, who is harbouring her own secrets, runs her college as a tight ship, demonstrating little tolerance for misbehaviour from her students. But senior students Miranda (Lily Sullivan), Irma (Samara Weaving) and Marion (Madeleine Madden) demonstrate a rebellious nature, from truancy to a clique that weaves its own power within their class.

During a day trip to the nearby Mount Diogenes, better known as Hanging Rock, the girls’ independence leads to a rock climb which famously leads to a mystery that needs little elaborating here.

Just how this will play out over 6 episodes is a bit of a mystery in itself, suffice to say there are elements that lend themselves to a modern age of TV drama: multiple characters, the supernatural, backstory, striking visuals, montages, dark themes, flashbacks, lingering looks, slow motion, dream sequences, suspended story threads, even flashes of nudity….

At its strongest the visuals bask in the landscape of the Macedon region, sometimes resembling a painting. The drama works overtime to put arresting images on the screen, with camera tilts and stylised shots to the point of becoming a tug-of-war between style vs story.

Lily Sullivan displays a maturity as young Miranda that makes her the more interesting of the principal cast whilst Natalie Dormer, as a very youthful Mrs. Appleyard, is decidedly unlikeable without enough explanation as to her constant disdain. The first episode is so busy in setting up its mood and ensemble that it isn’t clear whose story this is: principal or student?

Director Larysa Kondracki also employs a distracting comtemporary soundtrack to a classical, lyrical story which, together with some visual sequences, sometimes feels like a music video. I guess this can’t be accused of copying Peter Weir, but the opening chapter risks the cohesion and focus that will embed a miniseries audience too.

Thankfully things improve with the second episode after the girls go missing, albeit with a non-linear narrative.

There are several Indigenous performers in the piece, including Madeleine Madden and Mark Coles Smith, and I’m hopeful that the Indigenous mythology of the Rock also comes into play as the mystery unfolds.

Where the Rock was the star of Weir’s film the Foxtel version shifts to those at the Appleyard College, which is probably a reflection of the longer form. Whether that’s an improvement, or even an alternative perspective, is better answered by Joan Lindsay or those connected to its past, rather than we who are merely custodians passing through.

Picnic at Hanging Rock airs 8:30pm tonight on Showcase.
Updated.

17 Comments:

  1. Ummmm …… I just have to ask and i have only watched the fist episode but where was the rock?
    At least the film was beautiful to look at and the soundtrack made it a tad mysterious, this just seemed like gothic horror gone wrong!

  2. I guess live ‘ratings’ for ep1 (121k) are hard to judge as all 6 were made available online. But there doesn’t seem to be a buzz about the show. I read the Whirlpool forum and there’s hardly any comments on the show. May not be the demographic, but it can be a good guide to how well a show is going. David: any news from Foxtel on their reaction? Foxtel Now is frustrating for me as I have an AppleTV and Android TV box, so must ‘cast’ to them.

    • Oztam just counts them: Ep1 has had 17k viewings online as of this morning. The timeshiftings on IQs would be the most important number, larger than the 112k in the Overnights. The show really just didn’t work. Miss McGraw disappeared from the episode to get it down to 1hr, but presumably she also disappeared on the rock, as in the book.

  3. The original film is iconic. Shouldn’t be reimagined. Just look at Wake In Fright last year for Ten, the disaster of all disasters.

  4. I was going to binge watch it but now am reconsidering. In this day & age where there are so many series available to binge, it has to be really worth watching .

  5. To be honest, the original film, whilst well photographed and with a stellar cast of the period, was a pretty dull product-the story isn’t really filmable. The decision to cast Nat Dorms as the headmistress reeks of the need to appeal to an audience that won’t look at a series unless it has young, attractive escapees from ‘Game of Thrones’ in every role…

  6. If I recall this production was beset with problems from the beginning. Instead of one producer guiding this production from conception the first resigned followed by another experienced producer who also resigned and finally the Fremantle producer of Wentworth. While soaps often change producers in well oiled production machines doing this with a mini-series which aspires to top end is disastrous. The result now speaks for itself. The feature masterpiece should have been left alone (as should also have happened with Wake In Fright).

    • Except the thing is that the original films are still available and untouched; no one has said that because these remakes are out there you can’t watch the original films. This is not a situation like with the original trilogy of the Star Wars films, where the original cut cannot be seen, only the re-edited films.

      Also, future generations should be allowed to reinterpret classic material within the scope of their own times. You mention Wake in Fright. I look at the updating of Romper Stomper, and how that has been adapted in line with the current political and social climate.

      • You raise an interesting question in your last sentence: should programs be “adapted in line with current political and social climate”? I have a general problem with rewriting in this way. I prefer the originals to be shown and watched with full acceptance of the climate of the times.

  7. I tried really hard to watch it….ended up confused and then fell asleep….will have to think long and hard about viewing the second episode….

  8. The problem for showrunners nowadays is that there is so much content to attract viewers attention, a new show must gain the viewers interest in the 1st episode or miss out. I think most Australians overlook the lack of polish in Australian productions especially when they are colloquial stories, but if you re-imagine a successful movie like Picnic at Hanging Rock it has to offer that extra enticement and anticipation for more, I”m afraid this show fails on both counts.

  9. What a shame. I was deeply disappointed and it will take serious willpower to watch the second episode. I’ve downloaded the whole thing (after stumbling on it on Foxtel On Demand rather than because of good communication by Foxtel) but I’m not sure I have it in me! It was confused, indulgent and bizarre.

    • It’s been very well promoted by Foxtel that the entire season was going to be available to download immediately after the premiere

      • I saw those promotions Barrie but it didn’t actually say where to find them. I ended up joining Foxtel Go and setting up a separate account because I could no information on their website or anywhere else about where it would be if you have an IQ box. Then I stumbled on them on On Demand Box Sets when I was looking for something else.

  10. Errr… well that didn’t work well, did it? Bit of an annoying mess all round.

    You say it gets better with ep2? Will maybe give it a go that far, but I wont be holding my breath…

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