Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)

Australian film heresy: I’ve never seen Peter Weir’s 1975 adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock. I’ve read the novel, by Joan Lindsay, several times, but mostly because I like boarding school fiction. The movie has always been on my “one day I’ll watch that” list.

But I was intrigued enough by Foxtel’s new six-episode adaptation that, to my flatmate’s dismay, I signed up for a Foxtel Play trial to stream it.

(Sidebar: Foxtel Play’s streaming quality is quite good, but every time I opened the app on our TV, The Bolt Report would come blaring out. No one needs Andrew Bolt and Peta Credlin in their living room. In future, I think I’ll just get my Foxtel-made series on DVD from the library.)

Unfortunately, the new adaptation is a bit terrible. The good news is, it’s terrible in some interesting ways.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a slim book full of purple prose. Ideal for adapting into a movie. Difficult to stretch into six hours of television.

So the series makes additions. Flashbacks to the lives of the three missing schoolgirls, their ambitions, their relationships — all this makes sense (though I have questions about individual choices, as we’ll see), and I’ll never complain about giving Madeleine Madden more screen time.

Turning the awkward, rather stupid deportment teacher, Dora Lumley, into an awkward, rather stupid religious fanatic, an antisemite, a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her misogynistic brother: again, a valid narrative choice with problems in the execution.

Giving headmistress Mrs Appleyard a secret past as an abused orphan turned con artist, on the run and waiting for her (apparently) adoptive-father-turned-husband to come for her while posing as the respectable headmistress of a girls school…

It was all very entertaining, and would absolutely make for an enjoyable series in its own right. Just not this series. The two storylines don’t fit, no matter how many parallels are drawn between Mrs Appleyard and Sara, the winsome orphan she abuses.

But then, you don’t cast Natalie Dormer and then keep her on the sidelines. Why you would cast Natalie Dormer as a character who is meant to be in her fifties at least

Natalie Dormer as Mrs Appleyard, with her hair loose, small sunglasses perched on her nose, wearing an anachronistic sleeveless dress with a mandarin collar and semi-transparent panel over her cleavage.
What is happening with this costume?

Australian television seems to have reverted, of late, to the bad old days when you had to have a Big International (British) Name in the cast in order for a series to get made. Iain Glen in Cleverman. Ioan Gruffudd in Harrow. Dormer here.

On a purely pragmatic level, it’s a sensible decision. Times are tough, funding for local drama is limited, international distributors are more likely to put money into a production with a recognisable name and face. But it’s also taking us to the bad old days of the cultural cringe, Mick Jagger playing Ned Kelly, the exclusion of Australians from their own narrative.

Having said all this, Dormer is English, playing an English character, and she is very, very good. That Mrs Appleyard has been aged down and sexed up is just emblematic of this series’ approach to women and sexuality.

Good news: Picnic 2k18 has overt queerness.

Bad news: Picnic 2k18 gives us queer men, who are outdoorsy! healthy! alive and headed for a happy ending by the time they depart the scene! Aaaaaaaaaaaand queer women, who are neurotic! tragic! doomed and dead!

The subtext isn’t great, you know what I mean?

And it’s probably intentional that only one character escapes the college alive, sane and with a healthy relationship to her own sexuality. The show’s set in 1900, after all. But when you have multiple queer women, and the only one who makes it to the end is straight — again. The subtext.

(I will give it points for depicting, or at least hinting at, different types of queerness — Miss McGraw and Marion Quaid are apparently lesbians; Irma is bisexual; Miranda probably asexual. But since all but one of these characters are dead by the end, and Irma is portrayed as possessive and neurotic…)

Part of the problem is that the series takes the subtext of the novel and makes it text, without actually addressing it or engaging with it. For example, much of the horror in the novel (and, I’m told, the movie) is derived from the white Australians’ subconscious sense of themselves as interlopers and intruders. Indigenous Australians are conspicuous by their absence, and the landscape itself is haunted.


Casting Indigenous performers Madeleine Madden and Mark Coles Smith means that terrifying vacuum is now filled — but with what?

Marion’s identity as a woman of Aboriginal descent is remarked upon by others, but we never learn how she feels — if she feels alienated from her heritage and her Country, if she resents the Europeans, or if she is choosing deliberately to assimilate. The closest we come is in the final episode, where she reacts with irritation when Irma, who is portrayed as an English rose exiled from her family, makes a remark about savages.

(Likewise, Irma’s Jewishness — another change from the novel — is similarly external. People comment on it, and she’s the target of an antisemitic rant from Miss Lumley, but we don’t get to find out how she feels about her religious and cultural background, about being a religious minority in a Christiancentric society.)

As for Coles Smith as Tom — nothing. He’s there, he’s charismatic (as Mark Coles Smith always is), but he’s exactly the same likable side character he is in the novel. We get no insight.

I am always in favour of seeing Madden and Coles Smith on my screen, but this was not the place for colourblind casting.

To add insult to injury, the Indigenous tracker employed by the police to find the missing girls is largely silent throughout the series, until the final episode, when–

He gives a brief speech about the timeless nature of the Rock, the inability of whitefellas to understand the significance of the Australian landscape, and it honestly could have been written in any decade post-invasion. Change the phrasing, and it could have been delivered by any Indigenous person in any colonised country. Frankly, actor Bruce R. Carter deserved better, and so did the audience.

And weirdly, despite all this, the landscape doesn’t really figure in the visuals. I don’t know if that’s because of the choice to import a Canadian director and the belated addition of an Australian woman to the directing team, but scenes set in the bush are flat, and though I don’t understand cinematography, they look cheap and, like the special effects, weirdly reminiscent of early ’80s Doctor Who. And there’s no sense of the heat, of the oppression and discomfort of wearing petticoats and corsets in February.

It’s not all bad. There’s some great performances … and there’s also Don Hany deciding to road test a whole new accent in episode 5. (I mean, I laughed.) There’s an interesting tension created by the characters who don’t realise they’re not in a procedural. There are a handful of stunning visuals and enjoyable anachronisms, shots where the school’s cliques are filmed like it’s Mean Girls in corsets.

But ultimately, it’s uneven, not nearly as clever or insightful as it thinks it is, and not even Natalie Dormer can save it. I’m awarding it two floaty white dresses out of five.

Other things

  • For a while I thought we got full frontal nudity from Philip Quast, but I’m now pretty certain that was just my faceblindness at work, and it’s actually full frontal nudity from some other dude. I apologise to everyone I have traumatised.
  • Sybilla Budd is wonderful, because she’s wonderful in everything, and honestly she would have made a pretty great Mrs Appleyard.
  • I have Questions about some of the costume choices, particularly Mrs Appleyard’s undergarments.
  • Yael Stone is maybe a bit too weird as Miss Lumley? But I like her a lot, so I’m prepared to be forgiving.
  • My flatmate snickered every time we had a shot of Werribee Mansion trying to look gothic and intimidating. It was pretty great.

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