The reimag­in­ing of Peter Weir’s 1975 clas­sic is a tri­umph thatat iss at­tat­tractin­gact ac­co­lades world­wide

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock,

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

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