TL;DR – A surreal experience that plays on the power structures of the time, an important retelling of an Australian classic that everyone should watch.
Score – 5 out of 5 stars
“What happened to the girls at the Hanging Rock?” It is one of the most famous questions in Australian mythology. Was there foul play, did they run away, was it something out of this world? The book by Joan Lindsay and the fictional yet presented as the real account is one of the most important works of literature to out of this fair country, and it was turned into a very successful film in 1975. Well, that was over forty years ago and today we have a new take at adapting the classic book into a mini-series format. Today we take a look at the world at the turn of the twentieth century, a world of pomp and ceremony, and a world of oppression and conformity.
So to set the scene, it is 1900 in the quiet rural reaches of Victoria, a colony of Great Britain and soon to be part of the new country of Australia. We open on Mrs Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), widow and she purchases a large mansion. However, right from the start with a shifting accent, we know that there is more to her story than what first appears. She turns the mansion into a finishing school and thus becomes the new headmistress of the Appleyard College. The school provides an education to girls to prepare them for marriage, and parents send their girls there hoping to improve their chances to marry up the social ladder. We have Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan) the daughter of a stockman. She grew up on the land with four brothers and wants to run the farm but her parents want her to marry someone better. There is Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving) an heiress to a large fortune sent to the school after her parents divorced and her mother remarried in a bit of a scandal. Marion Quade (Madeleine Madden) the daughter of a local justice born out of wedlock to an Indigenous mother, and Sara Waybourne (Inez Currõ) an adopted orphan whose new father is a wealthy nomad. Well one day all the girls, bar Sara, go off to a wonderful picnic under the Hanging Rock. They are watched over by Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers (Lola Bessis) and Miss McGraw (Anna McGahan) and meet the new eligible bachelor in town Michael ‘Mike’ Fitzhubert (Harrison Gilbertson). All is going well until the girls along with Edith (Ruby Rees) go off to visit the rock, but only Edith returns, and the whole town’s lives get thrown into chaos as not even Miss McGraw who went off to find them can be found. Now we will be looking at the season as a whole in this review, so if you have not watched all the episodes (you can see them all online at the time of writing) there will be some [SPOILERS] ahead.
The first thing I simply have to talk about is the amazing production work that has gone into this series. Honestly, I think the costumers deserve all the awards they will win for their amazing attention to detail. Every little detail was exquisite, from every outfit Appleyard wore, to the dresses of all the schoolgirls, to the clothes the snobbish townspeople wore, to the police uniforms, all of it was amazing. Of course, all the clothes are highlighted by the juxtaposition they create when framed within the Australian landscape. Here is where I have to give another accolade and this is to the location scouts. Yes, when you have Hanging Rock as your background it is going to make everything look that much better. However, it was more than that, it was the pond where they had the picnic, the gum (eucalyptus) forests they strolled around, all of it added to how the series looks. It was not just the natural world that was on show in this mini-series, the township is period appropriate, the coaches that they were riding were fascinating, and the mansion they found to film in, was just superb. All of these locations are majestically shot with sweeping crane shots going from the ground all the way up to a balcony, and what I assume were some well-filmed drone shots of galloping horses from above. Add to this the amazing sound design which uses creaking trees, bird calls, unsettling music, and even Morse code I think at one point to add to the soundscape. If that is Morse code I wonder what it spells out, was it more than just a subtle SOS. As someone who lives in Australia, it feels both at once familiar but then also equally off-putting which really accents the series tone and feel.
Now, of course, it is one thing to have a wonderfully produced series, but what you need to make it shine is a cast that is willing to take it to the next level, and with Picnic at Hanging Rock we get just that. Now the cast is led by Natalie Dormer and I was interested to see what she could do post-Game of Thrones, and what she can do is amazing. She is playing a character that everything about her is a lie, the way she dresses, where she lives, what she does, indeed the very way she speaks is all a performance. It takes real skill to make that feel believable especially when you are slipping from a queen’s-English accent to a cockney one in the same episode. Add to this the core trio of Lily Sullivan, Madeleine Madden & Samara Weaving who are playing characters that are all hiding something about themselves. Hiding the love for the land, the indifference of their parents, and who they really love. They are playing characters that all were forced here against their own wills and who are rebelling in any way possible against the power structures that led them here. We also have a strong supporting cast including the teachers, other students, and the townsfolks that inhabit the area. For me, the highlights were the local stable hand Albert (James Hoare) and his arc with who he cares about. The passion of Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers who alone had the conviction to see through Appleyard’s lies. Also the determination of Sgt Bumpher (Jonny Pasvolsky) to find answers as too what happened that day.
You have your production side locked down, and have cast an amazing cast the next thing you need is a good story, and you know what, where better than a foundation text of Australian literature that has bled into mythology and more. Much like Lost, The Rain (see review), and Westworld we don’t get a straight linear progression of the story. The main thrust of the story follows the aftermath of the girl’s disappearance, but also it flashes back to the fateful day, and the build-up to it so we can see more of the girl’s lives. As well as this, we jump back even further to see key moments in people’s lives that led them to where they were. This kind of jumping around in time could be confusing, but instead of it being a jumble, it feels more like a puzzle and each shift is another piece being put into place to reveal the whole. Now we mentioned that there were [SPOILERS] but I am now going to talk about the ending, so a quick final warning to jump to the next paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled. The mini-series, like the film, and the book they are all based on is not really concerned in giving complete answers for everything, or indeed anything. While it incorporates some aspects of the added ending to the original novel it leaves it completely ambiguous as to what happened to the girls and Miss McGraw up on that rock. Indeed, there are a lot of plot points that don’t seem to be resolved, did Albert meet up with Mike? Did Sara fall or was she pushed? Does Irma actually remember what happened on the rock? Why does Appleyard do what she did in the end? Indeed thinking back the only thing that really got some closure was the relationship between Tom (Mark Coles Smith) and Minnie (Emily Gruhl). Some of this is not helped by people not giving letters to people as quickly as they should.
For me at least what makes a story really shine is when it is using its time to explore some of the deeper themes that exist in the world, in this Picnic at Hanging Rock exceeds in spades. The series is constantly showing the damage on inequitable power structures in Federation period Australia (and it is not being subtle at all that some if not all of these power structure still exist today). Take Miranda, she is someone who is born of the land, could ride a horse before she could walk, she knows her families property intimately, but she will never inherit any of it because it will all go to her brothers. Her parents have sent her to the school not out of spite but love so she can find someone good to marry because they honestly feel that is the best place for her in this world. You have Mike who has been sent to the back end of an already far-flung colony because of the horrific scandal that he kissed another boy. You have Sgt Bumpher’s investigation being hindered by Colonel Fitzhubert (Nicholas Hope) because he is getting too above his station. You have Appleyard punishing the girls for the very independence she herself craves and has in some measure obtained though through a ruse. You have the upper-class townsfolk use pejorative terms for any of the Indigenous people, as if they were less than people. All of these power structures put the girls on that path to the top of the rock a place which sits both in and out of time.
In the end, do we recommend Picnic at Hanging Rock? Yes of course we do. It is brilliantly designed, masterfully constructed, it has a stellar cast and story, and is exploring themes that more people should think about. I got the chance to watch it all in one sitting so that it was an almost five-hour film rather than a series of weekly entries and I think that works best, especially in keeping the narrative in order. In any way I think it would be good to check Picnic at Hanging Rock out, and walk into a world of mystery and power, that is both apart from our time but also a good reflection of it.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Picnic at Hanging Rock
Directed by – Michael Rymer, Larysa Kondracki & Amanda Brotchie
Written by – Beatrix Christian & Alice Addison
Based off – Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Starring in Season One – Natalie Dormer, Lola Bessis, Yael Stone, Anna McGahan, Sibylla Budd, Lily Sullivan, Madeleine Madden, Samara Weaving, Ruby Rees & Inez Currõ with Jonny Pasvolsky, Kate Bradford, Mayah Fredes, Harrison Gilbertson, Emily Gruhl, James Hoare, Markella Kavenagh, Alyssa Tuddenham, Bethany Whitmore, Kaarin Fairfax, Roslyn Gentle, Aaron Glenane, Tom Hobbs, Sibylla Budd, Lee Cormie, Nicholas Hope, Mark Coles Smith & Don Hany