Australian drama series (2018)
Picnic at Hanging Rock…
When three schoolgirls and a teacher from Appleyard College disappear on Valentine’s Day in 1900, the event has a far-reaching impact on the rest of the school, as well as the nearby township. People quickly come up with theories about the disappearances as paranoia sets in and long-held secrets surface. As authorities get further into their investigation, the mystery surrounding the case seemingly deepens. Natalie Dormer stars in this adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same name.
The last couple of nights were spent watching the TV series adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was released last year. Before I go any further, I want to point out that I am only reviewing the TV series here and I’m not looking at it within the context of the novel upon which it’s based, so there will be no commentary on it from the perspective as an adaptation, more as a standalone historical drama. It’s been far too long since I read the novel for me to remember anything specific for comparison purposes. And I’m also not going anywhere near Peter Weir’s film adaptation from 1975 because I hated that so much that I have erased all memory of it from my brain. So, now that the scene is set, let me begin…
This is a six episode series, so it’s more of a mini-series I suppose. I liken watching the first three episodes to sitting down to a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle while you’re absolutely smashed. There’s all of these pieces rattling around, but they’re blurry and hard to pick up and there’s no edges, none at all – they’ve left them out of the box! – so you can’t even begin to make sense of what’s in front of you. This is seriously weird TV. There’s all of this flickering and ghosting and jumping here and there, bits of conversations and people popping up at random places only to disappear again into the ether. It’s a mish-mash of gothic horror with supernatural leanings and a heavy dose of the ethereal. It’s absolutely bonkers. It’s like an overdose on Baz Luhrmann done by somebody who just didn’t know when to quit. I can see why so many people just stopped watching after the first couple of episodes.
But I had bought the DVD and I’m nothing if not committed to getting value for my money, so I needed to watch it until the end. The last three episodes are much stronger. They lose a fair bit of the weird flickering ghost thing that was going strong in the first three episodes (if you’re not sure what I mean by this, see the pictures at the bottom of this post), but this seems to be replaced with an obsession with ticking clocks. A lot of clocks, sweeping camera angles over clock after loud ticking clock. I’m not all that certain as to the symbolism of these clocks. Time did stop at the rock during the picnic, at midday, and never seemed to restart. And then there’s the concept of things changing over time, and in these last three episodes, we go back to a lot of scenes we’ve already seen before, but now we are privy to full conversations, the missing pieces are slotted in. We also get to see the things that happened before the picnic that actually have a great bearing on the mystery. I still think I’m missing the overall point of the clocks but if I die never finding out, I’m good with that. These last three episodes persuaded me that there was a certain cleverness to this series that would have been missed if you’d judged it by its beginning.
There’s a heck of a lot going on though and the disappearance at the rock is really just the catalyst for this story. I do think they maybe attempted too much because things seemed to really get tangled up and confusing for a while there. It’s a shame too, because overall, the story was compelling, and the acting was impressive. Natalie Dormer plays Hester Appleyard, the headmistress and owner of the ladies college, and while everyone will remember her from Game of Thrones, she was also in The Tudors, where she played Anne Boleyn to perfection. But the rest of the cast were quite outstanding within their roles, particularly the young Inez Currõ as Sara Waybourne. And then there’s the costuming and the absolutely stunning house and grounds that provided the setting for Appleyard College. Hanging Rock itself was depicted as suitably eerie and all of the scenes filmed there just dripped with atmosphere.
The disappearance of the girls and their teacher sends Hester into a spiral and her carefully built college begins to tumble like a house of cards. Beset with paranoia that is rooted in her reasons for fleeing England, coupled with an unstable mind that reaches right back to her terrible childhood, Hester just loses all grip on reality. The weight of her own fabrications torments her and feeds her paranoia. Hester’s backstory was very Victorian, so grim, and a terrible example of the worthless regard for children during that era. That a man could just walk into an orphanage and buy a pretty girl is so repulsive, but that’s certainly not the worst of what went on back then. Despite these glimpses into Hester’s past, she’s not a character you can ever really like. Particularly when you consider her treatment of poor little Sara Waybourne, an orphaned girl who was picked up for an orphanage by a kindly benefactor and sent to the college. In Sara, Hester can no doubt see similarities between their beginnings, however, Sara’s benefactor was an entirely different man to Hester’s, and I don’t know if this meant that Hester felt she needed to punish Sara for her good fortune. But instead of showing Sara compassion, Hester set out to inflict as much misery as she could upon the poor child, who in the end, paid the ultimate price for crossing her head mistress. This whole storyline was at times distressing, as were other scenes of physical abuse within the college, but they were very much in keeping with the era. The protection of children was not an established concept yet. I must say, I did enjoy the ending where Hester realises that she has been obsessing over nothing and that she was completely off base with her suspicions about the disappearance of the girls and their teacher. Too bad about all the people who were now dead, unemployed, or mentally distressed because of her wigging out. It’s a great example though of that whole saying, something along the lines of ‘people are not thinking about you nearly as much as what you think they are’.
There were some really interesting concepts threaded through this series, particularly the idea that the colonies were a place where you could go to remake yourself. When the police sergeant points out that qualifications are empty in the colonies, because no one is who they say they are, I found that particularly pertinent. Of course, Hester was the biggest pretender of all, we find out that out in the first scene when her internal dialogue doesn’t match the plummy English tones she carefully speaks out loud. But I thought it also rang true for those who wanted to reinvent themselves, which brings me to the mystery at the heart of this story: what happened to the two missing girls and their teacher? The show doesn’t answer this directly, but it certainly lays it all out for you. The two girls and the teacher that remain missing were in no way a random selection. Each of these women had a reason to disappear, a yearning for freedom and reinvention. My theory: they ran away. They saw an opportunity and harnessed it. And there was certainly evidence to suggest this was the case. Australia may have been on the cusp of Federation, but there was still a wildness to the place and ample places to run to and hide. Proof of identity was a whole different ball game back then, particularly in the colonies outside of the cities, and there was only so far a search could extend.
So as you can see, there really is plenty in this series to appreciate if you can wade through the weird and get past the ethereal aura. Overall, there was a great deal of authenticity, although I do think it was over sexualised. The storyline of the student/teacher relationship was weakened by so many other characters experimenting with their sexuality. I am not convinced that there would have been such a concentration of bisexual or homosexual young people in such a small town, no matter how far flung, in any era. A case of over-doing a concept to the point of missing the mark, which kind of characterises much of this series. If you’re a fan of Picnic at Hanging Rock, it’s certainly worth checking this out, likewise if you favour historical fiction with gothic elements. The trailer here is well done, but don’t be alarmed, The Doors only provided a soundtrack for the trailer, the soundtrack for the series itself was true to the period.
Rating: 6 out of 10, but I’m being generous and this is mostly for the last three episodes.