The choice to turn a new Picnic at Hanging Rock adaptation into a six-part limited series may have seemed ill-advised at first glance. After all, the most famous adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel became an unsettling, illusory classic from director Peter Weir in 1975. But since there’s no sense in letting good IP go to waste, and considering that film is now over four decades old at this point, a new interpretation was likely a foregone conclusion. Thankfully, showrunner Larysa Kondracki, along with writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, have a compelling take on the material, along with a terrific cast headed up by Natalie Dormer, that makes full use of the haunting story while knowingly instilling some contemporary ideas into the usual period drama trappings.
Picnic at Hanging Rock concerns the disappearance of three girls from Appleyard College, an exclusive Australian boarding school run by Hester Appleyard (Dormer). The girls vanish without a trace on a Valentine’s Day outing to the famed Hanging Rock, an event attended by almost all the students in the school, as well as several headmistresses. The disappearance is made more vexing due to the lack of tangible evidence or plausible explanation for why and how the girls went missing. It’s as though the young women simply ceased to exist, and it’s this baffling account that not only lends the series an eerie, slightly heightened atmosphere and often dreamlike nature, but also threatens to expose Hester’s dark past.
Kondracki allows the story to unfold as controlled chaos. She shifts focus from Dormer’s Hester to the three girls, Irma (Samara Weaving), Marion (Madeleine Madden), and Miranda (Lily Sullivan), on a whim, before shifting again to a pair of headmistresses played by Lola Bessis and Orange is the New Black’s Yael Stone, as the ultra-religious and often cruel Dora Lumley. Then there’s the possibly exiled British aristocrat Michael Fitzhubert (Harrison Gilbertson), who becomes a chief suspect in the disappearance, even after finding one of the girls (Irma) alive after the initial search has been called off. Compounding the sense of disorientation, the story jumps back and forth in time with equal impulsivity. Despite this disordered structure, however, Picnic at Hanging Rock never loses the thread; it remains a captivating story told through seemingly unorthodox means. The effect, though deliberately perplexing, is a fascinating presentation that’s on par with its subject matter.
Rather than become a rote procedural about missing women, Picnic at Hanging Rock is entirely invested in prodding the ambiguity at the center of the narrative. The girls’ disappearance occurs early on; this allows the story to move forward and examine the fallout of such an event — both within the confines of Appleyard College and the country as a whole — but it also affords an opportunity to loop back and fill in the gaps of the girls’ lives, which takes on a greater sense of significance in the context of the mystery surrounding their whereabouts. The further past that fateful Valentine’s Day the series progresses the more the flashbacks begin to leave the series feeling unmoored. The effect is compounded by additional flashbacks intended to flesh out Hester’s sordid, violent past as a grifter. Those moments give lend a necessary sense of urgency, counterbalancing the tendency toward languid introspection as far as the missing girls are concerned.
The series is marked by a number of terrific performances; Weaving, Madden, and Sullivan are particularly strong together. Similarly, Inez Currõ, who plays Sara Waybourne, a young orphan who is infatuated with Miranda, makes good on a complex role that would be a challenge even for much more seasoned actors. But the series ultimately revolves around Dormer, who plays Hester with a cold, parochial detachment that is soon revealed to be an act of self-preservation. Hester has remade herself into a well-regarded (and feared) headmistress in an attempt to escape her past, but a move down under isn’t far enough once the girls’ disappearance shines a spotlight on Appleyard College. Dormer’s role, then, becomes a delicate act of balancing internal desperation with an outward calm. The result is somewhere between blithe and callous, which makes the story’s escalation in the final two episodes all the more fascinating.
Perhaps the biggest surprise offered by up by Picnic at Hanging Rock is how the story benefits from its six-hour runtime. At a moment when everything on television (and in theaters) could stand to leave a lot more on the editing room floor, Kondracki’s new adaptation makes use of longform storytelling by taking the story places Weir’s ethereal movie simply couldn’t or wasn’t interested in. The result is a well-paced miniseries that’s as interested in ideas of ambiguity, as it is in Hester’s own much less ambiguous desire to disappear and the rapid disintegration of the new life she’s built for herself as the proprietor of a well-respected boarding school.
The series works to bring those two elements together with a compelling visual approach that vacillates wildly from hallucinatory to lush to campy and then back again. Though equally strange and haunting, this new adaptation nevertheless doesn’t feel as though it’s competing with Weir’s version (and not just because many new viewers may be unaware of it or the book). Instead, it feels more interested in presenting the story from a new perspective, which means a new interpretation of the source material, the end result of which can stand on its own.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.