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.