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