Picnic at Hanging Rock is the sapphic, David Lynch-influenced mystery-thriller that you didn’t know you needed.
Based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel about a group of students who disappeared 118 years ago during a field trip to Hanging Rock in Victoria, this six-part miniseries is at once earnest and knowing. The filmmaking and performances are just arch enough to be taken as camp, but every role has been written, cast, and performed with such empathy and imagination that whenever a character is humiliated, rebuffed, or traumatized, you may feel slightly ashamed at yourself for having laughed at their absurdities a few scenes earlier. Characters look straight into the camera sometimes, as if to say, “I know exactly what I just did, and don’t you dare judge me for it.” The series’ control over tone is impressive. One wrong move and it might’ve turned into a very bad Ryan Murphy series, something along the lines of Australian Horror Story. Instead it keeps gliding along, delving deeper into menace by the hour.
Natalie Dormer stars as Mrs. Hester Appleyard, headmistress of the self-named Appleyard College for Young Ladies, set, as Lindsay’s novel tells us, in “one of those elaborate houses that sprang up all over Australia like exotic fungi following the finding of gold.” Hester buys the place outright. Where does her money come from? We’ll find out eventually, dear viewer. Which of the girls will disappear? Will it be Miranda (Lily Sullivan), a dark-haired, faintly rebellious girl who has issues with authority and loves to go barefoot? Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving), a crystalline blonde who epitomizes the British Empire’s ideals of physical perfection and absolutely knows it? Will it be the school’s lone student of indigenous blood, Marion Quade (Madeleine Madden); the precocious 14-year old Sara Weybourne (Inez Curro); or Edith Horton (Ruby Rees), who only recently got her period and thought there was something wrong with her?
This is a populous series, thick with incidents, twists, and cliffhangers, but the pace is slower and more meditative than your usual potboiler. The main characters’ psychologies and motivations are delineated so clearly that whenever they do something that seems out of character, it only takes a moment to realize that it does, in fact, make sense, given what their issues are. Writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison have gone out of their way to turn this story, which was so memorably adapted to film by Peter Weir in 1975, into a distinctive work that has its own personality even as it genuflects to its primary inspirations. Besides Lynch, the series owes quite a bit to Jane Campion, who shares Lynch’s affinity for ominous forests that can seem either enchanted or cursed, and Sofia Coppola, who counts the original Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its gauzy photography and European art cinema accents, as a major influence.
It’s hard to understate the excellence of the Game of Thrones veteran Dormer. Every inch the movie star antihero, she immediately draws the audience into rooting for Hester, and she never quite relinquishes her grip on those sympathies even when the character proves herself to be the exact opposite of what a “woke” 21st-century viewer would want from a heroine. (The characters behave true to period even when the series highlights just how oppressive this particular time and place was for women; the difference in privilege between the wealthy white girls and the working class men and indigenous Australians is noted as well.) Hester is positioned as an Edwardian-era version of a hard-boiled dame from the very start, and even as we learn more about her — as we realize that she’s running away from trauma and carrying a terrible psychic weight — the core of charismatic toughness never goes away.
It’s a sensory experience first and foremost, forever trying to depict events in the most clever, sensuous, or surprising way possible, even when a simpler approach would’ve gotten the narrative point across. Synthesizer music shimmers and drones on the soundtrack, complementing the rock-and-roll Alice in Wonderland accents of Edie Kurzer’s costumes. Directors Amanda Brotchie, Larysa Kondracki, and Michael Rymer (the latter two are veterans of violent, genre-driven TV, including American Horror Story and The Walking Dead) never miss an opportunity to adopt an exaggerated or skewed perspective. As overseen by cinematographer Garry Phillips, the camera tilts to convey disorientation and peers through windows and doors, from the far sides of rooms, and from high overhead. Many of the shots are rigidly symmetrical, arranging the young women in rows so that they look like frilly-costumed figurines in a diorama, and there are wordless slow-motion sequences that draw out moments of wonder, sexual attraction, anxiety, and terror. When two men on horseback pass the girls as they head out for Hanging Rock in a carriage, the moment is depicted extreme slow motion, putting you inside the heads of young women who have little experience navigating a world of adult men but are biologically hardwired to see them as potential threats. (They aren’t wrong; the horsemen become two of the suspects.) In the very first scene — a long take of several minutes’ duration that follows Hester around the enormous country house that she’s about to buy and turn into a school — the lush landscape behind her is so obviously green-screened that the effect is reminiscent of one of those moments in an old film where characters stand in front of a rear-projection matte painting of a forest, embracing each other and talking about how lovely it is. It’s a decadent yet oddly heartfelt feast for the senses, and one of the best surprises of the year.