If you’re torn about whether Picnic At Hanging Rock is for you, it’s worth reflecting on your feelings towards Lost. If you enjoyed the uncertainty, not knowing what is happening most of the time and moments of utter madness – then this is the show for you. If that doesn’t sound appealing, then this isn’t the show for you. That’s because Picnic At Hanging Rock is something of an acquired taste; with a disjointed narrative, a preference for ambiguity over any semblance of certainty and a predilection for the highly stylised strange… it’s the equivalent of televisual marmite.
It’s Valentine’s Day, 1900. Students and staff at Appleyard College, a finishing school for ladies, are off for a picnic at the nearby Hanging Rock. Not everyone returns; three of the school’s most beloved and renowned students, and one of their teachers, mysteriously vanish. The disappearance quickly and greatly takes a toll on the school as theories and rumours spread like wildfire with similarly devastating consequences.
Episode one is absorbing television from the get-go, for the same reason the entire series retains its hypnotic allure – Natalie Dormer. The mini-series starts with a prologue of sorts with Mrs Appleyard (Dormer) being escorted around a large manor house with a sweeping estate, by an Australian estate agent. She informs of her widow status, as she is clad in black neither he nor we have any reason to doubt her. Then her inner monologue is voiced and she is exposed, to us at least. Gone is the Received Pronunciation and clipped tones of the upper class to which she appears to belong. Instead we hear a cockney accent, rough and ready, a true juxtaposition to not only what we heard before but what we see in front of us. Quickly questions begin to form in the viewer’s mind – who is she really? Why is she lying to him? Is she really a widow? And, most intriguingly, who is the Arthur she keeps referring to? The very fact the sequence ends with her locking eyes with the camera, with us at home, reinforces our sense of unease. How powerful is she if she can sense us watching her? In this world, who is the watcher and who is the watch-ee?
Those questions won’t get immediate answers. In fact, some of those and other questions that get raised throughout won’t ever get answered. Not fully at least. And that’s something that makes PAHR all the more compelling and haunting. As one character notes in the sixth and final episode – ‘I knew more when they first went missing than I do now.’ It’s a throwaway piece of dialogue that more than resonates with the viewer.
This is also an example of a unique case when having read the original book (written by Joan Lindsay in 1967) or having watched the 1975 film adaptation wouldn’t necessarily help you. Unsurprisingly a longer running time allows for subplots to be further explored and fleshed out. Key themes from the book, such as the sexism and racism within 19th/20th century society are brought further to the forefront and exposed in greater detail. Characters are given more of a back story which allow for the effects of the girl’s disappearance to be further felt and the subsequent unravelling of the lives of all involved hit all the harder.
The girls and the women who teach them are initially shown to be those who have everything, a notion which is quick to be erased; thereby making a great statement about society and the difference between perception and reality. This is also a concept explored by the series overall as the role of the Gothic within the original text is expanded through the soundscape and editing utilised. Modernity clashes with the period details shown to us, almost in the vein of Peaky Blinders. The soundtrack is a cacophonous blend of the more classical with the blistering new, emphasising the otherness of these young women. As does a stand out sequence in episode 2 which hints not only at the girl’s strange relationship with each other, but also with the world around them. The role of the supernatural retains a sense of lingering omnipresence, never fully declaring itself but remaining hovering on the fringes of everything.
The best way to describe PAHR is the love child of Lost and The Virgin Suicides; an audacious, wicked and ghastly enigma. Just don’t expected it to be neatly solved.
Dir: Larysa Kondracki, Michael Rymer, Amanda Brotchie
Scr: Joan Lindsay (novel), Beatrix Christian, Alice Addison
Cast: Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, Lola Bessis, Harrison Gilbertson, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden, Inez Currõ, Ruby Rees, Yael Stone.
Prd: Brett Popplewell, Antonia Barnard
DOP: Garry Phillips
Music: Cezary Skubiszewski
Run time: 360 minutes
Picnic At Hanging Rock is available on DVD from 20th August.