Tribeca TV ‘18 ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ Review: The Mystery Remains

Thic piece is by guest writer Grace Perkins.

Picnic at Hanging Rock has been adapted for the screen once again. This time, as a six-part miniseries distributed by Amazon Prime. Based on the classic 1967 Australian novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock will be available to the public on May 25th. However, it might even be more appropriate to think of it as a “six-hour film” as many of those affiliated with the project have dubbed it.

While you may be acquainted with Peter Weir’s mystical and highly heralded film, so far, Picnic through the lens of the 21st century, is a promising and relevant reimagining. It fails to fall into a singular genre, shifting between the titles of drama, horror, thriller, and the expected historical hues of period dramas. 

It also boasts a more layered and therefore, realistic characterization of the women within the story; a recurring theme in hit shows such as HBO’s Big Little Lies, and in our current culture, with the movements that command our attention and elicit action.

Director Larysa Kondracki’s vision comes together with many moving parts to create the whole – a whole shimmering and bursting with color. Rich pinks, purples, oranges, greens, and yellows dominate the screen, filtered through a stunning array of costume, scenery, architecture, and lighting.

The title cards at the start of the premiere episode (as in Weir’s film) allude to what will quickly become the main focus of our tale: whilst picnicking at Hanging Rock on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, several girls from the isolated Appleyard College go missing.

The episode teeters between stylistic extravagance and stylistic genius, with ticks, synths, and throbs of a recurring theme rising and subsiding in the background of the school grounds, tea parties, and the eventual fated gathering. Kondracki opens with the darkly silhouetted figure of Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), the no-nonsense headmistress of the finishing school, Appleyard College. She has just purchased the estate within which she will lay siege upon the best and brightest young ladies, grooming them like prized horses for auction to the highest bidding bachelor. However, we soon learn Appleyard is not all she seems (with the aid of a snarky voiceover). She smiles slyly, turning to face her broker as she considers her purchase. Her steps echo from room to room, her immaculate black gown sweeping over the musty carpets. We immediately want to know more.

We soon meet the three students who will consume the minds of the locals, students, and audience alike. Their names, once whispered with glee and sternly commanded by governesses, will quickly become the cries of search parties. They are Miranda (Lily Sullivan), Marion (Madeleine Madden), and Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving). The episode takes us through various school routines as well as their first outing, an opportunity to socialize and meet young men and well-respected adults alike. However, things quickly take a dark turn when Miranda–who unlike Irma could care less about the proper wardrobe or anything “proper” for a lady for that matter–is cornered by a drunken soldier in a nearby stable. Fortunately, just as Appleyard storms in, she is able to fight back before any physical harm comes to her.

Appleyard’s lack of concern for Miranda and quick suggestion to clean up before anyone sees, appalls the young girl who turns to her friends for guidance. As Miranda’s rebellious spirit, as well as that of her younger companion, Sara (Inez Currõ), continue to infuriate Appleyard, they begin to pull back the curtain on their headmistress’ evidently murky past. Miranda along with Marion, Irma, and a number of other girls are, however, soon on their way to Hanging Rock, donning hats (to keep the complexion of a lady), gloves, and the infamous white dresses associated with the story. They are commanded to keep away from the rock, but disobedience following curiosity in such an airtight environment as this provides the itching sensation of freedom.

picnic 2

With the exception of a seemingly misplaced montage to mark St. Valentine’s Day, with cheery music to match and the juxtaposition of the recurring theme with various scenes, the first episode to the series was a delightful watch, as well as a beautiful one thanks to the cinematographic work of Garry Phillips. Kondracki, also with the aid of the script, pulls you in, edging you closer before tugging you quickly away. We’re left turning our heads back for just another peek, another look at the shadows beneath the door.

Kondracki has stated that while she saw the film originally as a student, she reserved it to watch again after filming concluded, aware that Weir’s film is a stand out on its own, and determined to make her own mark on the story. Any sense of familiarity or revival of iconic imagery has been taken from the novel. This version of Picnic is not meant to remake Weir’s project, but simply, to take the original text and interpret it in a different age and with new eyes. It adds more to the beloved tale, all while catching glimpses of the same ghosts.

Dormer tackles the role of the headmistress with her usual indomitable force, bringing a fierce hardness to the role, but also flashes of vulnerability. Appleyard radiates with the cold fear of someone who has literally run from their past and now must face the slowly suffocating horror of losing all she has built. As Dormer remarked, she is “definitely” in need of intense therapy and is the least “self-aware” of any of the characters she has portrayed thus far – a distant cry from Dormer’s turn as Margaery Tyrell for any fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

While it may be difficult to live up to Weir’s vision of the novel, 2018’s Picnic at Hanging Rock delves deeper, veering off the path to further explore female relationships and what independence means for a woman living in a male-dominated society. A new vision for a new generation, Picnic is worth the watch, even if one only tunes in to see Dormer blow the roof clean off of a carefully curated Victorian mansion.

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