Play­ing a Bri­tish woman en­coun­ter­ing the Aus­tralian bush in Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock came nat­u­rally to Natalie Dormer, writes Justin Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

At the launch of the reimag­ined Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock se­ries on Valen­tine’s Day this year, more than 100 cast mem­bers, me­dia and guests gath­ered at the tit­u­lar lo­ca­tion in Victoria’s Mace­don Ranges on the prom­ise of an el­e­gant lunch in a stun­ning, open­sided mar­quee.

But long be­fore any­one could take their seats, fe­ro­cious winds ripped the mar­quee in half, lead­ing to a mad but suc­cess­ful scram­ble to re­lo­cate the event.

For any other launch, it might have been con­sid­ered in­aus­pi­cious. But for this par­tic­u­lar se­ries, the sim­i­lar­ity with the ill-fated pic­nic, de­picted first in Joan Lind­say’s 1967 novel and then in Peter Weir’s 1975 film, was too de­li­cious to pass up.

In­deed, it could be said that this bold re­boot has the wind firmly at its back: af­ter well­re­ceived screen­ings at the Ber­lin In­ter­na­tional and New York’s Tribeca film fes­ti­vals, it premieres to­mor­row on Fox­tel’s Show­case chan­nel, with all six episodes avail­able to stream im­me­di­ately — and with in­ter­na­tional de­buts on Ama­zon in the US, BBC in Britain, Canal+ in France and Sky New Zealand to fol­low.

The greatly ex­panded role of Hester Ap­p­le­yard, the head­mistress of the fic­tional girls’ board­ing school, is played by Bri­tish star Natalie Dormer, best known for her roles in Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games films.

The 36-year-old says the Aus­tralian landscape is al­most like its own char­ac­ter in Pic­nic.

“It was kind of NAR — no act­ing re­quired — for me, be­cause here I was, a Bri­tish woman com­ing to Aus­tralia for the first time just like my char­ac­ter did, and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the sights and sounds and smells, not to men­tion the majesty of the landscape,” she says.

“Stand­ing on the Hang­ing Rock and see­ing the beauty of the Mace­don re­gion, be­ing in that an­cient and spir­i­tual place, had a mas­sive ef­fect on me. And it’s a landscape that com­pletely in­tim­i­dates Hester — she is a street rat from Vic­to­rian Lon­don, and the sheer power and raw­ness ter­ri­fies her.”

Dormer, who played Mar­gaery Tyrell across five sea­sons in Thrones, and pre­vi­ously played Anne Bo­leyn in Show­time’s The Tu­dors, says she wasn’t overly ea­ger to do another cos­tume drama. “When I came out of Game of Thrones, I took six months off and shot a movie I co-wrote ( In Darkness, re­leased in the US this month), and did a film with Mel Gib­son and Sean Penn ( The Pro­fes­sor and the Madman),” she says.

“Not on my list? Get­ting into a corset again; it’s not a pi­geon­hole I need to re­in­force.”

But af­ter read­ing pro­ducer and writer Beatrix Christian’s scripts for the first Pic­nic three episodes and re­view­ing lead direc­tor Larysa Kon­dracki’s “look­book”, which de­scribed the in­tended tone and vis­ual mood, Dormer was sold.

“I thought, ‘ Bloody hell, a cou­ple of re­ally tal­ented women, a fe­male-cen­tric pro­gram, and hav­ing never been to Aus­tralia; it would have been churl­ish to have said no.’ ”

Dormer’s Ap­p­le­yard goes far beyond the rather prim stock char­ac­ter found in the film; in many ways, the mys­tery of her real iden­tity and the se­crets she har­bours from her past are as in­trigu­ing as the fate of the miss­ing school­girls played by Lily Sul­li­van, Sa­mara Weav­ing and Madeleine Madden and their gov­erness played by Anna McGa­han.

“It’s all there in the novel with a wink and a nod, and Bea re­ally saw that sub­text,” she says.

“And there were many late-night pow­wows af­ter a full day shoot­ing, try­ing to con­struct this past that Hester is run­ning from.”

Ap­p­le­yard is si­mul­ta­ne­ously an op­pressed woman and an op­pres­sor. “Hester’s great mis­take is try­ing to en­force the anachro­nis­tic Vic­to­rian so­cial struc­ture on her young charges, and not em­brac­ing the chang­ing times and what a young woman at the turn of the 20th cen­tury could hope to be,” she says.

“Hester is a tragic, tragic hero­ine — or per­haps an­ti­heroine — who comes to face-to­face with her­self in the fi­nal episodes.

“This is the beauty of play­ing the role: os­ten­si­bly she could be a two-di­men­sional vil­lain, but mak­ing her real and plau­si­ble and ul­ti­mately sym­pa­thetic.” More than two years into script de­vel­op­ment and ne­go­ti­at­ing in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights with Lind­say’s es­tate, the pro­ject came close to col­lapse in late 2016 when the Aus­tralian Direc­tors Guild con­demned the selec­tion of Kon­dracki — a Cana­dian — as lead direc­tor.

“The whole show nearly Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock’s fell over when the ADG pulled their very op­por­tunis­tic stunt and de­manded an Aus­tralian fe­male direc­tor, and it felt re­ally un­for­tu­nate as so many women were al­ready in­volved in this pro­ject,” says Christian, the far north Queens­land-based au­thor of episodes one to three and six of the se­ries.

“Larysa’s am­bi­tion from the be­gin­ning was to make a show that would suc­ceed overseas,

Natalie Dormer as Mrs Ap­p­le­yard

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