tue 11/08/2020

Picnic at Hanging Rock, BBC One review - camp girls' school gothic | reviews, news & interviews

Picnic at Hanging Rock, BBC One review - camp girls' school gothic

Picnic at Hanging Rock, BBC One review - camp girls' school gothic

Natalie Dormer leads a rebooted adaptation of the contemporary Australian classic

No picnic: the girls of Appleyard CollegeBBC/Fremantle Media/Narelle Portanier

How many people were watching Picnic at Hanging Rock as it took its bow on BBC One? This opening episode happened to be preceded by a rival attraction on ITV. The premise of the story, set in Australia in 1900, is that almost no one sees three girls in their long white summer dresses abscond from the eponymous school outing to explore a local attraction and vanish without trace, to be followed by their teacher. Thanks to an unlucky accident of scheduling, the audience may have vanished too.

This is a six-part adaptation of the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, but the story is far better known for the Peter Weir film from 1975 which joined a surge in Australian filmmaking. Probably not many of the potential audience have seen that film or read the novel, so this new version is mostly not in competition with collective memory. There was a nod to the early 1970s in the title plate’s retro typeface, but after that it ploughed its own furrow.

The adaptation has boldly gone for a camp rock video aesthetic tinctured with late Victorian colonial gothic and the merest hints of softcore eroticism. The tone was established when mysterious widow Mrs Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer at her very vampiest) was shown round a splendid old manor, with a view to purchasing it. That she had something to hide was suggested by the camera’s refusal to show her face - the backview of Dormer is Mrs Appleyard's go-to power look. A voiceover revealed she used to have a less refined accent and a saltier profession. “There’s always naked tits in the finer establishments,” she confided as she took in the house's nude alabaster statues.Natalie Dormer in Picnic at Hanging RockThe chatelaine of Appleyard College is more dominatrix than headmistress, adept at physically abusing errant girls and happy to maim marauding young males with a handy mucking-out fork. You believed her when she preached her credo that women in a marriage bed are “no different from beasts of the field”. It’s not clear why there is so little discipline at her school. Maybe she just couldn’t get the staff. Miranda Reid, for example, is a horse-mad serial truant whose first act of insubordination was to squat over a chamber pot and nonchalantly urinate in front of a powerless teacher.

The first episode flirted with comedy, as if content to accept that this seductive horror myth is delicious bunkum. Clanging sound effects and Mrs Appleyard’s perfectly ridiculous John Lennon shades suggest an adaptation eager to keep its tongue in its cheek. But it looks quite sumptuous,with a glorious palette in the costumes. And the three leading girls - Lily Sullivan as Miranda Reid, Samara Weaving as Irma Leopold, Madeleine Madden as Marion Quade – lead a young and largely female cast with vitality and sultry confidence.

As for the scheduling blip, there’s always the iPlayer. And perhaps the good news from Thailand’s cave system will stimulate interest in a story of young people’s mysterious disappearance (though don't count on the same joyous outcome).

In 2015 there was a campaign to remove a statue of Miranda from the real Hanging Rock not far from Melbourne as, it was claimed, the novel’s flirtatious denial of its own fictionality had obscured the location’s much deeper connection with Aboriginal history. A brief closing credit, effectively in small print, advises that “Picnic at Hanging Rock would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we film”. In case anyone missed that too.


The first episode flirted with comedy, as if content to accept that this seductive horror myth is delicious bunkum


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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