Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Picnic at Hanging Rock: The Mystery Still Beguiles

It is considered one of the most quintessentially Australian novels of all time. The 1975 film adaptation not only helped popularize the Australian New Wave internationally, it also launched the careers of Oscar-nominated director Peter Weir, John Jaratt (star of the notorious Wolf Creek films), and Gheorghe Zamfir, “Master of the Pan flute” (heard on the soundtrack). It takes a lot of guts to have another go at such an iconic property, but somehow screenwriters Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, along with Larysa Kondracki (director of three episodes and general “creative consultant”) pull it off with dashed impressive verve. The completely binge-worthy six-episode limited-series adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (trailer here) defies skepticism when it launches this Friday on Amazon Prime.

On Valentine’s Day 1900, several students of Appleyard College and one of their teachers mysteriously vanished while on the school’s annual picnic at the Hanging Rock formation in central Victoria. Their disappearance caused a scandal in the sleepy village and sparked a media firestorm throughout the rough-and-tumble nation. Despite days of searching, no sign was found of any of the missing picnickers. It led many of their classmates (as well as readers and viewers) to question the legitimacy of concepts like truth and reality. Then one of the girls is miraculously found alive on the rock’s summit, but this only leads to more questions and greater uncertainty.

Weir’s 1975 Hanging Rock is considered one of the haziest, dreamiest, most disorienting films ever. The 2018 television adaptation has those qualities too, especially the earlier episodes helmed by Kondracki, but it also embraces the gothic implications of the story. Oftentimes, this Hanging Rock feels like it might have been ghost-written by Daphne du Maurier or even Willkie Collins, which is not a bad thing. In fact, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw plays a small but aptly significant role as reading material for two of the missing during the prior Christmas break.

Natalie Dormer fully embraces the gothic femme fatale tradition as a decidedly younger Mrs. Appleyard than the Weir film has accustomed us to. Yet, she is terrific casting withering stares and dropping barbed comments. Watching her lord over Appleyard College is deliciously entertaining in the manner of vintage Hammer Films. Unfortunately, Kondracki and company somewhat overdo a good thing by incorporating far too many flashbacks from her lurid past in London.

In contrast, the voluminous flashbacks featuring the missing students (and their wayward teacher Miss McCraw) quite effectively and intriguingly deepen the story and strengthen the character development. They also explain how what was quite haunting as a one hundred-minute film can hold up and maintain its atmosphere of mystery over six fifty-some-minute episodes.

Hanging Rock 2018 could very well catapult the twentysomething central trio of Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving (niece of Hugo), and Madeleine Madden to international stardom. In a way, they are archetypes who together make a whole. Sullivan plays Miranda Reid, the Katharine Hepburn-esque free-spirit, who chafes under traditional gender roles. Weaving is Irma Leopold, a pampered but emotionally neglected heiress, while Madden is Marion Quade, the shy, cerebral daughter of a scandalous mixed-race union—in a perhaps the most dramatic, but fruitful innovation on Weir’s long-presumed definitive film.

This time around, the underclassman Sara Waybourne is played by the conspicuously younger (and talented) Inez Currõ, which makes the dynamics of her hero-worshipping relationship with Reid much more logical and believable. Among the grown-ups, Lola Bessis nicely counterbalances Miss Appleyard’s evil eye as French instructor Mlle. de Poitiers, who emerges as Hanging Rock’s gothic heroine.

All six episodes were lensed by cinematographer Gary Phillips, giving the series a consistent, evocative look. The rock itself is quite an eerily beautiful locale. Indeed, throughout the series, viewers can palpably feel how the secluded environment and oppressive Australian heat could drive anyone a little mad, especially when combined with raging teenage hormones. No matter how highly you regard the 1975 classic, the 2018 Hanging Rock will still pull you in and propel you to binge the entire series. Very enthusiastically recommended, the new Picnic at Hanging Rock drops this Friday (5/25) on Amazon Prime.