Amazon serves up Larysa Kondracki’s adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, over six episodes and, in so doing, changes this turn-of-the-century lunch into a feminist gothic buffet. The first episode sets the stage: A group of female boarding school students picnic at Hanging Rock, a towering volcanic formation in the nearby Australian outback. However, by the end of the day, three girls and one teacher have disappeared somewhere among the rock’s crags and caverns.
Many viewers will know that this is not the first screen adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, and Amazon is likely hedging on that name recognition. But for those only familiar with Peter Weir’s 1975 film of the same name (currently streaming on FilmStruck), they may be perplexed at the prospect of such a story being stretched over six hours.
If Weir’s film has one defining attribute, it would be inaction. Mysteries aren’t solved; events aren’t explained. Motives, backstories, even the ensuing police investigation — none can escape the miasma of lethargy that pervades the film. Vaporous in both tone and look, the whole film comes through like a dream just faintly emerging from the fog of the unconscious.
But if Weir’s art-house masterpiece is best described as a fleeting dream, then Amazon’s new take on the story is a full-blown nightmare. Where Weir goes lightly, Amazon goes boldly, sometimes garishly. The ultra-vivid color palette, the generous use of dramatic slow motion, the propulsive soundtrack — these and other such stylizations suggest this modern take on Lindsay’s book has no time for Weir’s subtleties. It has six episodes to fill, and the modus operandi of bingeability demands constant enthrallment.
The tenacity of Hanging Rock’s storytelling drives the series not only into the characters’ histories but into their psyches as well. Real events tangle with memories and hallucinations, weaving a strange tapestry of the imaginative and the surreal. Once the viewer is given a peek inside everyone’s head, though, they all seem to be thinking the same thing: freedom. The homosocial environment of a girls’ finishing school at the turn of the century provides a textbook platform for feminist critique, and the series’s creators don’t allow the symbolism of a single loosened corset to go to waste.
Those who disappear during the picnic all yearn for something other than their destined station in life. Miranda (Lily Sullivan) prefers slacks and horseback to dresses and drawing rooms; Irma (Samara Weaving) is a cast-aside heiress, crushed by her parents’ mixture of expectation and negligence; and Marion (Madeleine Madden), the offspring of a prominent politician’s illicit affair with a native woman, is too “dark” for high society.
Just as important to the series as any of these social desires are the characters’ sexual ones, where bodices come off not just figuratively but literally. Everybody wants some, and much of the series’s tensions and reveals revolve around taboo lusts and loves.
Even the headmistress receives a provocative update. The only star power propping up the show’s otherwise fresh-faced cast, Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) plays Mrs. Appleyard. Whereas in previous incarnations the aged Mrs. Appleyard represents the withering atrophy of an inelastic social order, Dormer’s turn at the character gives Appleyard a supple vitality that manages to make her both more malignant and more sympathetic.
Her nearer age to the students styles her something of a dark sister rather than a cantankerous spinster. Dormer’s Appleyard still functions as a conduit for the time period, but the traumas are active instead of calcified; her evils spring from the careless society that raised her, and, in that, there is a semblance of kinship between her and the charges.
While the students seek liberation from an oppressive future, Appleyard seeks liberation from an oppression that has already left its mark. She too fights for freedom. Is that what the girls found in the rock’s prehistoric walls? Everyone is dying to know. Literally.