Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock 1×1 (Australia: Showcase; UK: BBC Two)

No classic

Picnic at Hanging Rock

In Australia: Sundays, 8.30pm EST, Showcase
In the UK: Acquired by BBC Two. Will air in 2018

Many countries have works of classic literature that are little known or regarded elsewhere. That’s true, even for countries that speak the same language. How many Brits have heard of, let alone read the US’s Faulkner, for example?

Joan Lindsey’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is one such classic. Indeed, so unlikely is it that you’ve heard of its author, you probably didn’t notice I spelt her name wrong just then. Although, to be fair, it’s not like I’m immune to typos.

Written ostensibly in the style of true historic happening – complete with references in the style of The Ipcress File and The Andromeda Strain – it details the disappearance of three boarding schoolgirls during a picnic near the titular Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia, on St Valentine’s Day, 1900. No one knows what’s happened to them as the one person who saw them disappear loses her memory and there are decidedly supernatural overtones to the whole affair. The rest of the book is then about the effects on the community, the girls’ school and its strict headmistress Mrs Appleyard.

If you’ve heard of Lindsay’s classic Australian novel, it’s probably because of a classic from another medium: Peter Weir’s 1975 movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was one of the first Australian films to gain international recognition and commercial success:

And now we have Foxtel Australia’s six-part interpretation, starring Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, The Tudors, Elementary) as Mrs Appleyard.

Rocky

With six hours’ of runtime, it’s no surprise that Foxtel’s version of the story gets to mine the source material far more than Weir did, as well as come up with its own additions and mine Weir’s version on top of all that. It also gets to do something that Weir never could – use elements from the original but excised final chapter of Lindsey’s novel, which was published posthumously in 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock.

Dormer is clearly a different Mrs Applegate from previous versions, here escaping a past that requires her to switch from a cockney accent in voiceover to posh Kensington in-story. Will she get found out when she starts roughing up a man who tries to take advantage of one of her girls and everyone realises she might not be as genteel as they suspected?

Meanwhile, the disappearing girls have a bit more background, with everything from a love affair to social rivalry – with so much of the story owing to Aboriginal lore, it’s apt, if a little surprising given the exclusive setting and the mores of the time, that one of the girls is aboriginal, too (let’s not forget the area was part of the aboriginal clearings of the mid-19th century).

However, there are some things this version has in common with the original, too. The plot is much the same, right up to the disappearance of the girls, although the manner of their disappearance has changed. The fixation with clocks and time are a constant, too.

Picnic girls

Too varied a serving

However, I’m not convinced that all this extra runtime has been good for the people behind it, because tonally, it’s all over the place. The first episode alone wanders between Bildungsroman, Pride and Prejudice-style social comedy, feminist critique of the patriarchy, crime novel and outright fantasy, touching on but never really doing much with any of its elements – as though it’s emptying all its toys on the floor and hoping to spot something it wants to play with. Certainly, the first 40 minutes or so up to the point the girls disappear are tougher going than they should be and don’t really win you over to the characters, although it comes close with the plucky Dormer.

Clearly, visually it owes a massive debt to Weir’s version, since everything looks almost identical, albeit a lot glossier. You could even swear they’d hired some of the same actors, were it not for the years between their making. Unfortunately, one thing it doesn’t borrow is Weir’s dreamier direction, the scene of the girls disappearing far too knowingly surreal but without scaring and Dormer’s dream is more laughable than profound.

Not a classic

All of which makes this a very flawed, not especially watchable, rather long remake. Whether subsequent episodes will make more of elements of the book that Weir barely touched on, such as the police investigation, remains to be seen and might make everything more interesting. I like Dormer – at least, when she’s not trying to do cockney – and the presence of the now ubiquitous Don Hany (East West 101, Serangoon Road, Strike Back) also suggest things could improve in later episodes, too.

But as it stands, this Picnic at Hanging Rock is less a classic, more a glossy remake designed to hook international interest than because it aims to contribute greatly to Australian culture.