Picnic At Hanging Rock Review: The Classic Reimagined

The Peter Weir classic is remembered for its pan pipe sound track, the white dresses, the rock and the unsaid, unseen and unknown. He transformed Joan Lindsay’s novel into a two hour psychological riddle with no real conclusion.

Foxtel’s Picnic at Hanging Rock the mini-series gives the gift of time. Four additional hours to attempt to unravel the classic novel that has become an urban legend, to provide depth and insight to the great unknown.

Same Same But Different…

1. Miranda, Where for art thou Miranda?

In the haunting original, the ethereal protagonist was a woman of few words and when she did speak it was prophetic. Her eyes were the window to her complex and ambiguous soul. Within episode one Miranda’s head space is less ambiguous; she has already spoken more words than in the entire movie it feels. She is a stifled teen in a reserved and protected world desperate to run free. Her childlike innocence is quickly stolen and her angelic wide eyes filled with fear and tears more than mischievous dreams. The reality of Miranda is complicated, for someone so young. As the story unfolds there is clearly so much more to learn.

2. Who is Head Mistress Appleyard?

Stoic, disciplinarian, tight lipped, sharp tongued, two-dimensional, this has all been left behind in the classic. If you think there are no onion layers to her, guess again and then keep guessing. In the Peter Weir movie, she is the headmistress of the school for ladies – full stop. She is ageing, immaculate, controlled, definitely in charge but lacking in depth and a reasoning or understanding for her actions. Before the opening titles have fallen upon the small screen there are questions, thoughts, desires to know more about this younger, flawed, deceiving lady in black. In the hands of Natalie Dormer we see Hester Appleyard in a shared protagonist role with Miranda. In fact, she has adopted the prophetic language previously seen in Miranda, which is so fascinating and we dive deeper into what or whom she is running from.

3. Not as much white.

It was always questionable as to how in 1900’s, before Nappy-san the myriad of iconic white dresses stayed so white. The girls appeared to wear white every day, perhaps as a symbol of their femineity and purity or of their restraint. It is refreshing to see the girls in other colours, it gives more depth to their personality and also more transparency into their daily and the world they come from and the one they now inhabit. The colour palettes have been carefully chosen to either compliment or contrast their relationships and great care and details are given to the authenticity of the period.

4. Seeing more does not mean knowing more.

The excitement of the psychological classic is that it is one’s own imagination that is fed by the creepy unknown, unsolved, unanswered narrative. There is always the fear in giving more of the back story or insight into the characters that the sense of ambiguity is lost. This is not the case for episode one at all, learning more about what makes Appleyard tick, or the family Miranda leaves behind in Queensland or even Irma’s family’s wealth and privilege that she is accustomed to has just made the intrigue deeper. At the moment it feels like a supernatural who dunnit and there are only questions… the answers are yet to come, or are they?

5. The Secrets.

The biggest secret to play out in episode revolves around Head Mistress Appleyard. The series opens with her, her back… it takes a long time to see her face as she is introduced as a questionable widow. This is immediately already more about her as a person than ever before. The layers continue… from her hidden former life, her vivid hallucinations and hidden personal belongings all pointing the great unknown and how little is known about this dominating figure.

6. New and Reinvented characters

The new characters are carefully woven into the storyline, like the handsome doctor who is seemingly under the thumb of Mrs Appleyard adds some eye candy and intrigue. The gossipy local townspeople, Lumley’s brother and the lusty soldier with his revengeful glares create endless possibilities in the mystery of what has happened at Hanging Rock.

There is also more substance being given to some of the previous side players in the web of mystery, the college’s gardener with the knowing smile, the elderly couple who picnic at the rock and the young posh with his valet who may be Sarah’s older devoted brother, Albert. The girls at the college are appropriately aged as juniors and senior. It makes Sarah’s infatuation with the older Miranda make more sense and Edith fits as the dibber dobbing pubescent on the out of the “cool kids”.

Don’t be afraid. The integrity of the original film and book is honoured. There is clearly a respect for the history of the story, it is being retold. Almost like a Chinese whisper through time and whether you love the original or have never heard of it before – this journey into the lives of the girls from hanging rock is enthralling. The contemporary soundtrack is completely different to the ethereal pan pipes but weirdly compliments the lurid pink titles and funk that has been injected into an updated twist.

Written by Cate Murray.