Picnic at Hanging Rock gets a haunting new remake

by Fiona Rae / 13 May, 2018
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Picnic at Hanging Rock.

A new six-part adaptation of Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock is more harsh LSD than magic mushroom.

There are similarities to Peter Weir’s landmark 1975 film, but the new adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (SoHo, Sky 010, Sunday, 8.30pm) is a harsh LSD trip by comparison with Weir’s dreamy magic-mushroom psychedelia.

The six-part series, set in a vast Italianate mansion in 1900, lurches between a supernatural mystery and a Gothic horror. Based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book, now considered an Australian classic, it’s the story of the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher while on a picnic at the ominously named rock formation of the title.

Outdoor scenes are filmed in heightened, almost Day-Glo, colours. During the search for the girls, Barbie-pink intertitles tell us how many days they’ve been gone. At the school, it’s all candle-lit corridors and faces emerging from shadows.

Heading a cast of emerging Australian talent, Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer was enticed by the producers for the central role of Hester Appleyard, the headmistress of a school for young ladies. Ah, but she has secrets and she is terrifyingly cruel, and as the mystery of the girls’ disappearance deepens, she starts to unravel.

There is a contemporary element that stretches beyond the central mystery: the series addresses more-modern concerns of self-determination and freedom for the young women, some of whom are chafing at the Victorian restrictions.

The girls are tightly controlled, their spirits and sexuality repressed. When feisty Miranda (Lily Sullivan) is caught running barefoot in the woods in her nightie, she is caned until her hands bleed.

“Appleyard thinks the way she is raising the girls is doing them a favour,” Dormer told Variety. “She genuinely thinks she’s passing on the torch of knowledge. What she’s actually doing is passing on archaic structures that stifle those girls’ spirits.”

When one of the teachers suggests that the development of the Federation of Australia is the chance for “a fresh start”, Appleyard tartly replies, “A fresh start from what?”

That kind of strict adherence to tradition is difficult to maintain, however, when you’re in an ancient, untamed environment and Appleyard’s disintegration was a drawcard for Dormer.

“She’s victimised and haunted by her past and her secrets, and her way of trying to deal with that is holding it tightly and putting a lid on it and being this tyrant,” she says. “As the layers fall off, she keeps scrambling to try to maintain control.”

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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