TV review: An eerie classic given a post-punk reboot for a new audience CONTAINS SPOILERS
PUBLISHED: 18:02 13 July 2018
If you tuned in to the new TV adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock expecting to hear pan pipes and see a carbon copy of Peter Weir’s classic, dreamy film, you’d have been disappointed. But this new version is definitely worth watching.
“Good morning, girls. We are fortunate in our weather for the picnic at Mount Diogenes. I must warn you the rock is extremely dangerous. You are therefore forbidden from engaging in tomboy foolishness... The vicinity is also renowned for its venomous snakes and poisonous ants. Try to have a pleasant day.”
The worst that’s ever happened to me on a picnic is when I was stung eight times by a wasp – in comparison to what happens to the young ladies of Appleyard College in Picnic at Hanging Rock, it was a walk in the park (quite literally. I was stung at a picnic in a park). No one was swallowed by a rock even once.
If you tuned in to BBC2’s adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book about the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls in the Australian outback hoping for an echo of Peter Weir’s classic 1975 film, you’d have been disappointed – this was a far feistier affair with punk pink idents, colour-saturated screens, hand-held camera work, vibrant colours, sassy dialogue, rapid zooms and panning shots: ethereal it was not. Good, it was (Yoda channelling, I am).
We began with a scene in a country mansion with enigmatic widow Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) an upper-class lady in widow’s weeds complete with black lace veil and gloves and the kind of shoulder pads no one would see again until the 1980s.
Outwardly, Hester speaks like a lady, her inner monologue is Cockney brass: “dress like a tart, you are a tart, dress like a widow…” Paying cash for the stunning Gothic pile in the middle of nowhere, Appleyard set about turning it into her own principality, a finishing school for young ladies where she ruled as queen over not only the girls, but also the governesses. It was clear from those first scenes that Hester is haunted by Something Very Unpleasant. But what?
We then met the pupils and their governesses, the latter dressed in rainbow shades of such vibrancy it took your breath away: haute couture frocks in peacock blue, plum, emerald green and sapphire, the former in pinafore dresses and, later, billowing, virginal white.
Ruling the roost at Appleyard College, the headmistress not withstanding, are the popular girls: Rothschild heiress Irma (Samara Weaving), judge’s daughter Marion (Madeleine Madden) and tomboy Miranda (Lily Sullivan). Miranda in particular – an amazing performance from Sullivan – is trouble in a bonnet.
She is taken to running barefoot in the grounds, is opposed to the sexism she’s supposed to embrace and finds herself at the brink of real peril when she’s caught in the stables by a soldier bound for the Boer War: when he tries to take advantage of her, she drives a pitchfork into his foot.
On Valentine’s Day, clearly a big affair, the girls have been promised a picnic at a nearby landmark and Aboriginal sacred spot, Mount Diogenes or Hanging Rock. After counting their cards, or bemoaning a lack of them, the girls gathered for a photograph, Appleyard in their midst, a slash of crimson in a sea of white.
When Miranda’s behaviour is punished (her headmistress found her in the stable, clutching the pitchfork), Appleyard chooses to dish out justice by being unjust herself: instead of banning Miranda from the much-feted picnic, she bans Miranda’s most devoted fan Sara (Inez Curro), instead.
While the girls make their way to Hanging Rock, Sara – an orphan who was separated from her beloved older brother at an early age when she was adopted by wealthy guardian Jasper Cosgrove – is left behind and sadistically punished by Appleyard, whose tough love is definitely more about being tough than loving.
At the rock, the colour palette was dreamy and washed-out, evoking a nostalgic feeling as if the audience was walking alongside the girls through a fading memory. We knew what was coming, but not how it would come: as it happens, we weren’t left, ahem, hanging, for long.
Strangeness seeped into the picnic scene: mysterious horsemen passed by, watches stopped, the ground shimmered and everyone fell asleep in a matter of moments - everyone but the governesses and Miranda, Irma and Marion, the Heathers of the school, firm friends whose womanhood is ripe with potential, oh, and poor, plain Edith. When the trio beg to go exploring, they are forced to take Edith and teacher Miss McCraw. Three of them will never return.
That moment, when we last see the girls as the rock seemingly invites them inside, will stay with me. This new series is eerie, Gothic, beautiful and mysterious: I shall think twice before setting out for my next picnic.