This reimagined Aussie classic feels of-the-moment, inclusive – and dull.
"A cloud can't scream, can it?" wonders one of the characters in Foxtel's lurid, lengthy reimagining of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and after six episodes in which the feverish and suggestive are repeatedly overlaid you'll know that the answer is apparently yes. Anything in the service of a heightened mood – female hysteria, sexual repression, Gothic horror, self-destructive regret and incantations all feature – is pressed into service by the storytelling. The real mystery is how little it adds up to.
There's nothing inherently wrong in going back to Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel, in which the inexplicable disappearance in 1900 of a trio of private schoolgirls and one of their teachers at the Victorian geological formation roils all involved, even though it's already been translated into Peter Weir's magisterial 1975 Australian feature film. It's rich source material. The problem is how it's been adapted for the quality drama era. Opening up the text limits it.
With two writers (Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison) and a trio of directors (Larysa Kondracki, Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie), this Picnic at Hanging Rock is a study of emotional pressure, both repressed and flaunted, that nonetheless is schematic. It feels of the moment in a way that is tedious instead of illuminating. There are same sex attractions between both female and male characters (the latter far less explicit), but they speak less to the individual characters than the script's inclusiveness.
The three young women who go missing all wish for a desired freedom. Raised on a cattle station in Queensland, Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan, who gives the richest performance) yearns for the physical freedom of the "true wild"; English heiress Irma Leopold wants to break free of the exile her family has sent her to; a judge's illegitimate child, Marion McQuade (Madeleine Madden) wants to escape a social order that condemns her black skin and attraction to the mathematics teacher Greta McGraw (Anna McGahan).
But their motives are too often hollowed out by the imagery. The camera floats as if detached from reality, before fixing itself at an angle to suggest an unnatural world. Stylised interludes, cut so that they're merely jarring flashes, punctuate the plot. The production design is evocative, but it's elevated to the confined excess of a hothouse, while the landscape is perceived differently by each director. A column of smoke hasn't been this menacing since Lost.
The eye or the imagination never wants for stimulus – there is no shortage of creepy men, from mysterious riders to a lurking English toff, presented as possible suspects in the disappearance. But some of the box-ticking elements lessen the impact. The absence of an Indigenous presence suggested a foreboding landmark poised for reckoning in Weir's film, while the series adds Tom (Mark Coles Smith), the Indigenous school handyman who is little more than a nice guy.
The plot's gambit is that it can fill out the mystery by delving into backstories, most notably with the headmistress and founder of the girls' school, Hester Appleyard (Game of Thrones graduate Natalie Dormer). Like many of the players, she has two sides: a respectable public face and a hidden past among Britain's criminal milieu, and with her angled slash of a mouth Dormer is exceedingly good at suggesting a survivor trying to outrun her ghosts – at least until the ghosts are made literal.
You keep waiting for the show to bear down and find a focus. There's a gripping scene where Miranda is cornered for sexual assault by a soldier and he tells her "steady now" as he draws close, as if she's a wild horse yet to be broken, but its powerful realism is never referred to again. The repeated definition of the young women is in repose, whether on a bed or the ground, as if exhausted or consumed by their actions. Picnic at Hanging Rock keeps coming back to rituals. They charge the atmosphere, until it simply dissipates.
What adds to the disappointment is that Foxtel has already made a local drama about a young woman trying to find answers in her unbalanced life amid the dislocating otherness of the Australian bush. It's called The Kettering Incident and it's original, incisive and compelling. It aired two years ago and very little in Picnic at Hanging Rock comes close to matching it.
Craig Mathieson has been the film critic for The Sunday Age since March 2012, having previously held the same position for Rolling Stone and The Bulletin. The former magazine editor writes widely on film, music and television, and is still able to quote sizeable chunks of the dialogue from Michael Mann's Heat.
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