Review by C.J. Bunce
Some mysteries will never be solved. That assertion is the subject of a smartly directed six-part series adaptation of Australian writer Lady Joan Lindsay’s 1960s historical Gothic mystery, Picnic at Hanging Rock, a 2018 Australian production with Amazon Studios, streaming now on Amazon. Inspired by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Lindsay’s story is a mix of fantasy and reality, an indictment of intransigent Victorian mores and class strictures, and this version is a vast improvement on director Peter Weir’s 1975 infamous film adaptation. Blending ethereal pastoral settings with dark terrors, via tight writing, impeccable historical settings and costume recreations, and a cast of intriguing, strong women, this is a must-watch for fans of British mysteries looking for something different. It’s also a good way to catch some of your favorite young actresses in unique performances.
The 1975 film suffered from tilting a bit toward the bewilderment of the focus of the story–on a field trip on Valentine’s Day 1900, a group of school girls and their teachers venture out to the real-life monolithic formation called Hanging Rock in central Victoria, Australia, resulting in three of the girls and one teacher missing from the group at day’s end, seemingly vanishing into thin air.
The cast of the series is led by Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) as the stoic, unflinching, and impeccably suited Mrs. Appleyard, headmistress of a far outback girls’ boarding school. Her secrets are not kept from the viewer–she has escaped a domineering, controlling man who dragged her through a life of crime, until she was able to steal away to use subterfuge and her stolen wealth to found the school. But she also suffers an early form of PTSD, which she takes out on the teachers and students alike, including the youngest, a 14- going on 30-year-old orphan played by Inez Currõ (The Commons, The End) who seeks any semblance of normalcy. The teaching staff includes the highly trained and caring Mademoiselle de Poitiers, played by Lola Bessis (Go West!, Thirst Street), the off-kilter Miss Lumley, played by the incredibly transformed Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black, Falling), and Miss McCraw (played by Anna McGahan, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Spirited), a teacher whose attraction to one of students only serves to fan the flames of the key whodunnit, especially when she ends up as the missing teacher with the three girls at the Rock.
The three missing students are part of a pact or clique within the school–was this a planned escape? Irma Leopold, played by current rising star Samara Weaving (Ready Or Not, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, The Babysitter, Ash vs. Evil Dead) represents the “haves” of Victorian society, a snooty heiress able to buy herself out of almost any predicament. Lily Sullivan (Romper Stomper, Barkskins, I Met a Girl) plays Miranda Reid, the carefree leader of the group who gets into the most trouble with the headmistress. And Madeleine Madden (Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Tidelands, Mystery Road) plays Marion Quade, whose mixed race prompts some ostracism from the headmistress and Irma.
Like the bizarre British quirky classics Wicker Man and The Prisoner, things aren’t quite what they seem on the surface in Picnic at Hanging Rock, but showrunner Larysa Kondracki′s (Legion, The Americans) version seems to get viewers much closer to the truth than before (she has called her series “Heathers meets The Breakfast Club with a little bit of The Shining”). Pervasive themes include sexual repression, isolation, subjugation of women, and stifling of the possibility of movement between the classes. For detractors from the film adaptation, be advised that this version offers a satisfying, yet faithful, conclusion to the story with most if not all your questions answered.
Nominated for eleven key Australian television awards, it justifiably won four, including best cinematography (Garry Phillips, Jack Irish, The Missing), best production design (Josephine Ford, The Quiet Earth, Judy & Punch), and two awards for best costume design (Edie Kurzer, Judy & Punch, The Violent Earth). Cezary Skubiszewski′s (Red Dog) musical score is also a stand-out in its own right, dipping in and out of a panoply of emotions.
If you’re going to invest six hours in something with a British flavor, this Australian series is a great choice. More accessible and engaging the the movie that came before it, the six episode series Picnic at Hanging Rock is now streaming on Amazon Prime.