LURED BACK TO THE ROCK
The reimagining of Peter Weir’s 1975 classic is a triumph thatat iss attattractingact accolades worldwide
The anticipated reimagining of Joan Lindsay’s classic novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, which in beguiling cinematic style pitches us helterskelter into the mysterious disappearances of three schoolgirls and their governess on Valentine’s Day in 1900 near Mount Macedon in Victoria, has received unprecedented international critical acclaim ahead of its world premiere on Foxtel.
Surely no other local series has received this kind of adulation before screening locally. It was celebrated at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it opened the TV section, and has screened at the coveted Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, New York. Starring acclaimed British actress Natalie Dormer, best known for her role in HBO’s award-winning Game of Thrones as would-be queen Margaery Tyrell, along with young Australian stars including Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden and Ruby Rees, the somewhat startling series has been picked up by Amazon in the US, the BBC for Britain, Canal+ in France and New Zealand’s premium entertainment channel SoHo.
It is produced by FremantleMedia and there is a tantalising array of talent on display, led by executive producer Jo Porter, who produces prison drama Wentworth for Foxtel.
Her co-executive producers are Anthony Ellis, whose successes go back to Blue Heelers and Water Rats, and Foxtel head of drama Penny Win, who commissioned shows as diverse and celebrated as Spirited, Devil’s Playground, The Kettering Incident and Secret City.
Script producer and lead writer (she wrote episodes one to three, and six) is playwright Beatrix Christian who, while having worked extensively in TV production, brings just the right subversively literary touch to Lindsay’s wellknown story, inserting unexpected trajectories, playing with time and conflicting viewpoints and character perspectives.
The creative consultant and establishing director responsible for the show’s narrative momentum and aesthetic is Canadian filmmaker Larysa Kondracki, highly regarded for her innovative work on high-end US cable TV series such as The Americans, Halt and Catch Fire and Better Call Saul. She was apparently chosen, along with local directors Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie, after more than 30 directors were considered, some declining apparently because of their regard for the integrity of Peter Weir’s 1975 movie adaptation of Lindsay’s book.
The events in this very different version begin in the final decade of the 19th century, when mysterious English widow Hester Appleyard, played with consummate skill by Dormer, pays cash for a white elephant of a mansion out in the bush near Macedon. From the start she exudes a kind of eerie power; like the mansion itself she appears to be “all on a grand scale”.
In an extraordinary pre-title sequence lasting five minutes and captured in one sinuous, gliding camera take, which subtly tracks in to extreme close-ups and retreats to panoramic wide shots as Appleyard investigates the mansion, Dormer establishes an arch manner and voice that is both convincing and assumed. Her narration provides her “real” voice, street smart, bitter and cockney.
“People always believe their own eyes,” she says. “Dressed like a tart, you’re a tart; dressed like a widow …” Spotting two marble statues in the mansion hallway that she will later label Purity and Refinement, she says: “There’s always tits in the finest establishments.”
The titles suddenly arrive, the font a garish kind of retro pink more suggestive of a classic horror movie than any Victorian period piece. This is a series that plays many games with style. Post titles, it’s six years later and the mansion is now Appleyard College, a school for young ladies presided over by the widow, extolling order, precision and perfection. We quickly learn the girls are an assortment of heiresses and local squires’ bastard children.
Star pupils are Marion Quade (Madden), the daughter of a senior judge, bored by the school’s emphasis on dresses and dancing; Rothschild heiress Irma Leopold (Weaving), beautiful and flirtatious, who loves pretty dresses; and wildchild cattle station heiress Miranda Reid (Sullivan), raised in remote north Queensland, and whom we first meet cavorting in a nightdress through the wild bush surrounding the school.
Early in the story she’s confronted by the unwelcome advances of a indolent young soldier loitering by stables in the town, and to ward him off impales his foot with a pitchfork, earning the disdain of the headmistress, who regards her as “a ruinously spoiled child”, but who makes sure the matter is hushed up. “You’re some lucky farmer’s dream,” a lascivious buggy driver later tells her, the men constantly scrutinising her.
Everywhere there are intimations of foreboding: black birds circle constantly; men are glimpsed in dark silhouette whenever the girls are away from the school; and massive black horses are always restless.
The girls go on a long-promised picnic to Hanging Rock, after being forbidden “any tomboy exploration”. There time suddenly stops, all time pieces frozen at noon, and life seems to exist in a different, eerie dimension. The young women seem to silently and in concert discover a new strength in themselves, a new freedom, and their bodies begin to sway-dance through the long grass towards the rock.
As in the movie, the rock is linked to a release from sexual constraints, the girls rejoicing in a new sense of freedom as they begin to experience the long-awaited picnic.
We know what happens next, of course, and the end of the episode sets up what promises to be a complex narrative over the next five hours. The subsequent investigation into the disappearances — the girls, according to Lindsay, venturing “out of the known dependable present and into the unknown future” — will drastically change the lives not only of the students, families and college staff, but of the community surrounding the school.
It’s a mystery moulded by the inexorable creative force of the landscape, not only its harshness, immensity and loneliness but also its eerie beauty, and the way the universe seems to press closely around the figures in the story.
DH Lawrence called it “a new weird greyblue paradise, where man has to begin all over again”. And in this magnificent production the power of the bush is cast like a spell upon all of them in a complex, interwoven narrative.
There is a luscious stylisation in the direction. Scenes are slightly realised in slow motion at moments of high emotion; sometimes there’s an almost balletic sense of movement and artful symmetrical compositions, a bit dreamlike, with the characters moving in groups that are almost dance-like in their precision and framing.
It’s a delight to look at as a production, full of teasing clues and pointers to possible backstories to come as the narrative unfolds, requiring us to interpret the unusual events we see. Are they dream or coincidence? Is that piece of action, that speech, that ominous look significant? The director creates a startling fictional world, a quite marvellous sense of the uncanny.
The very fact that it is 1900, the start of a great new century of promise and potential, lends an atmosphere of momentousness to the events of the story too, along with the fact of a war taking place that the young soldiers of the town are waiting to join.
It’s as if conventional society has moved off its proper course and needs to rediscover what is most important about life, dramatising in the most vivid way the clash of cultural ideologies of the period, resolving the conflict between social and religious traditions and the emerging intellectual and social currents of the new world that lies beyond the turn of the century.
It’s a place where women are still seen to have no role except as consorts to men, and the young women at the centre of the narrative are not prepared to sacrifice their emerging sense of self to the male gaze. (The notion of the “female gaze” and director and writer Jill Soloway’s championing of it were apparently an important creative motivation, the concept described by American critic Emily Nussbaum, not entirely convinced by it, as “the notion that the camera lens, which has been trained to ogle and dominate, can change, in female hands, launching a radical new aesthetic”.)
Beatrix Christian’s narrative is complex, articulate and a work of some philosophical depth, and there seems to be a sense of poetic justice shaping the development of the story and a strongly developed feminist view of the importance of women’s stories.
It’s filmed in such a provocative, highly conceptual way by cinematographer Garry Phillips — it’s visual aesthetic straight out of Tarantino — that it’s at once true to the period and compellingly contemporary. The fine critic Adrian Martin wrote of Weir’s film in the context of the fantasy genre, suggesting it was typical of the best of its kind, such as Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, “films as much about themselves and their shifting, disorienting relationship with an audience as about a world full of mysterious events”.
And this version of the well-known narrative I think is even more about ourselves than Weir’s, forcing us into a perplexing relationship with its many stories within stories, constantly and teasingly putting us into the position of having to decide what is or isn’t true.
Sunday, Showcase, 8.30pm, from which time all six episodes will be available to stream.
A scene from the TV series Picnic at Hanging Rock; below, Victoria’s Hanging Rock National Park