Peter Weir’s 1975 classic Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery defined by its inscrutability. The story of three boarding school girls and one teacher who vanish into thin air during a 1900 St. Valentine’s Day retreat to Hanging Rock—a towering natural edifice in the Australian bush, some distance from their remote residence—it’s a film famous for its lack of a definitive conclusion, and for its intoxicating and ominous air of sexual passion, repression and liberation. An ethereal whodunit whose potential answers remain open to interpretation, it presents a transfixing view of the clash between the civilized and the wild—in forms both literal and figurative. A singular work, as distinctive in style as it is in scripting and mood, it remains, over four decades later, a masterpiece about female desire as well as a preeminent work about Australia’s rocky colonial history.
It’s also an ideal adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, which hasn’t stopped showrunner Larysa Kondracki from returning to that tome for a six-part television series set to debut on Amazon this Friday (May 25). Recognizing that any attempt to merely replicate Weir’s artistry would be fruitless, Kondracki instead takes the predictable tack of expanding her narrative to fill in some of her source material’s many blanks—in terms of backstory and psychological motivations—and also reconfiguring its focus to more closely align with modern feminist sentiments. Her Picnic at Hanging Rock explicates, surmises and suggests with abandon, striving to preserve the saga’s fundamental impenetrability while also providing a far clearer idea of what, precisely, took place on that fateful holiday afternoon outing.
Adding much more, she comes up with far, far less.
The basic spine of Picnic at Hanging Rock remains intact here, but from the get-go, Kondracki makes her prime focus Mrs. Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), the widowed headmistresses of Appleyard College, a grand establishment of proper English decorum situated in the vast, unruly middle of nowhere. Of the many girls staying at Appleyard’s school, none attracts the same attention as Miranda (Lily Sullivan), a beauty who exhibits a fondness (and familiarity) with horses, and yet after being told by Appleyard that “what happens in the marriage bed is no different than what happens between beasts in the field,” informs her beloved classmate Irma (Samara Weaving) “I don’t want to be elegant. I’m not a horse being groomed for auction like you.” The push-pull between uninhibited freedom and repression is ever-present in this institution, as is lesbian-ish longing, be it with regards to Miranda and Sara (Inez Curro), a young girl who adores her as a big “sister,” or Marion (Madeleine Madden) and her teacher Miss Greta McCraw (Anna McGahan).
At Appleyard College, everyone’s carnal impulses are restricted by refined codes of conduct (an idea made literal by Sara later being tied to a rack). Thus, when Mrs. Appleyard permits the girls to visit ancient Hanging Rock, they’re thrilled by the prospect of experiencing a momentary release from bondage. After removing their gloves and stockings to frolic in nature, however, Miranda, Marion, Irma and sickly Edith (Ruby Rees) depart to explore the edifice, and shortly thereafter, Edith returns, alone and screaming mad. The trio’s disappearance (followed shortly thereafter by Ms. McCraw going missing) causes much consternation and bafflement amongst the survivors. Though a young aristocratic boy named Mike (Harrison Gilbertson) followed the girls for a time, both he and a working-class acquaintance named Albert (James Hoare) are at a loss to explain this situation, as is the sergeant (Jonny Pasvolsky) assigned to the case. The girls are, quite simply, gone.
Irma is soon located (albeit with little memory of what occurred), but viewers eager to discover what befell Miranda, Marion and Ms. McCraw will find little satisfaction from Picnic at Hanging Rock. This is as it should be, considering that the enduring power of Weir’s film comes from its irresoluteness, and the notions about sexual development, and the tensions between the modern and the ancient, that such ambiguity breeds. Unfortunately, virtually everything Kondracki’s show adds to the mix is either superfluous or heavy-handed. In this flashback-inundated do-over, Appleyard is a fraud on the lam from the dirty old man who saved her from an orphanage and turned her into a crook. Marion (now an aboriginal girl) and McCraw are would-be paramours whose romance must exist in an “in-between” state. And the calamitous friction between Appleyard and Sara has to do with the latter’s knowledge of the former’s true identity, which leads to a blackmailing scheme that ends in tragedy.
Kondracki’s portrait of these girls is at once too sketchy to make them three-dimensional, and yet too literal to make them beguiling – which makes them come across as grating bores. The heart of the matter is that Picnic at Hanging Rock is meant to play as a mesmeric reverie, not an oh-so-relevant character study. Without Weir’s gossamer-filtered visuals and attendant dreaminess, which were central to his dramatic handling of the story’s larger concerns, there’s almost no reason for this version to exist. In place of those vital aesthetics, Kondracki (who directs the first three episodes) delivers lots of awkward compositions of the girls posing shoulder-to-shoulder for the camera, bad green-screen imagery, and more canted angles than have been employed since Battlefield Earth, all of which further render the proceedings leaden.
Whether it’s stern religious cretin Miss Lumley (Yael Stone) or guilt-ridden French Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers (Lola Bessis), this Picnic at Hanging Rock spends considerable time fleshing out supporting characters who aren’t interesting enough to warrant such attention. Moreover, these figures’ personal mini-dramas have mainly been enhanced so the show can forward red-herring ideas about what happened to the missing girls. By series’ end, Kondracki has reconfigured the tale into one about female freedom from societal control, which involves granting her protagonists an agency that all but negates their enigmatic allure. Dormer, at least, is commanding enough to make Mrs. Appleyard an intermittently ferocious presence. Alas, given that she looks only a few years older than her charges, and thus hardly the sort of experienced matriarchal figure with whom parents might leave their children, she turns out to be hopelessly miscast – and thus the most glaring example of this remake’s unconvincing attempts at maturity.