Natalie Dormer
Photo: Amazon

Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock is a bewitching thing, “a film of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria,” as Roger Ebert put it. Buried is a key word there—much of what makes the film so haunting lingers beneath the surface, like a bare ankle glimpsed in a flash beneath a long, full skirt. You know it’s there, but matter-of-fact sightings are few and far between. It’s better that way. Wondering about it makes the experience more potent—stranger, sweeter, sicker, and more surreal.

For better, and for worse, the 2018 Picnic At Hanging Rock has no compunctions about wrenching up its petticoats and exposing those ankles to the elements.

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Adapted from Joan Lindsay’s revered 1967 Australian novel of the same name, Picnic At Hanging Rock centers on the pupils, teachers, and headmistress of Appleyard College, a boarding school for young ladies. On Valentine’s Day in 1900, they go on a picnic (at Hanging Rock, of course). It’s a lovely outing, but something isn’t right. Watches stop. The soil seems to quake. A young woman peers through the trees at her laughing companions, yards ahead, only to have those same companions suddenly appear behind her. Four of them wander into the rock and vanish, seemingly without a trace. (As with the novel, the story of these disappearances is presented with pseudo-historical trappings, heightening the sense of surreality.)

From there, all hell breaks loose—in a Victorian sort of way. The crisis brings about a change in nearly everyone, causing some to abandon seemly decorum and societal niceties, while others use such things as armor for the coming war. In no one is this change more pronounced than Natalie Dormer’s Mrs. Appleyard, whose already ferocious presence grows more alarming by the moment; and on no one does this series depend more than on Dormer. Hers is the performance on which this whole affair hinges, and it is a very fine one.

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Natalie Dormer
Photo: Sarah Enticknap (Amazon)

With Dormer, Picnic At Hanging Rock is an uneven but undeniably engrossing affair, strange and savage and darkly funny at times, especially in the early going. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Picnic At Hanging Rock without her. Mrs. Appleyard’s presence is felt even when she’s off-screen, a chaotic entity furiously striving to impose discipline on those into whom she careens. She’s a wild dog wielding a riding crop, a cannonball that ricochets rather than lands. Dormer bends the series to her will in a way the tyrannical Mrs. Appleyard could never dream of doing. As Appleyard loses her grip on the world, Dormer’s hold on the narrative only grows stronger. It’s a wildly entertaining performance, one of great style and substance, and richly textured enough to carry the weight of whatever the series might throw her way.

The same can’t be said of the entire cast. That’s not to say that Dormer and Dormer alone makes Picnic At Hanging Rock worth watching—far from it. There’s no one here who stands out for the wrong reasons, and when given the chance to do so, nearly everyone does smart, subtle work. We’re told over and over again that Miranda, the de facto leader of the vanished girls, is a fascinating, complex creature; that actor Lily Sullivan manages to make her both fascinating and complex in spite of this is quite an accomplishment. She’s joined in that central quartet by Madeleine Madden and Samara Weaving, both playing students, and Anna McGahan as Miss McCraw, the teacher who disappears along with her pupils. Each acquits herself well; McGahan is given least to do, and makes the most of her few scenes, while Weaving ably handles many of the narrative’s emotionally fraught moments.

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There are other standouts—Ruby Rees (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) is particularly good as a younger girl who narrowly dodges the fate of her peers and finds herself gripped by a kind of blood-tinged hysteria—but nearly everyone but Dormer has to contend with the series’ complete disinterest in restraint. Yael Stone (Orange Is The New Black) plays Miss Lumley, the cringing, pious Bible studies teacher; that Stone even somewhat successfully navigates the scene in which Lumley finds another teacher’s dildo and gleefully pockets it is a testament to her skill. That’s a potent example of one of the series’ central difficulties: It absolutely adheres to the old show-don’t-tell rule, but then it shows, and shows again, and shows a few more times just in case you missed it. The narrative remains mysterious, gothically lyrical, but the characters are often treated as though they’re about as deep as a day-old puddle.

Writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison do their cast no favors there. Nor do directors Amanda Brotchie, Larysa Kondracki, and Michael Rymer, who seem to have opted to leave it all on the table, trying every trick in the book to make sure this shit stays weird. Weird, it is, sometimes even approaching deliciously nightmarish, but the same lack of restraint that characterizes the broad writing choices can be found laced throughout the series’ most frustrating moments. Picnic At Hanging Rock often revisits the picnic (at Hanging Rock), and each time it finds not one new way to be creepy, but several, usually all at once.

Ruby Rees, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden, Lily Sullivan
Photo: Xinger Xanger Photography (Amazon)

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One sequence that goes from striking to irritating begins as Weaving’s Irma spins on the shore, seemingly caught in an odd, golden shimmer. Is it a trick of the light? A cloud of floating pollen? Is it the visual representation of some otherworldly force, soon to spirit her away from her companions, or is it her own life force made visible, daring her to run away from her cosseted, corseted existence? No idea—and it’s better that way. But then she begins to spin faster, the camera darts and zooms, the score crashes in, and Weaving’s eyes lock onto the camera again and again, until it’s finally done, and the story moves on. It’s an evocative sequence, to be sure, but it’s never more potent than when it’s just a girl in a weird, gold cloud. Picnic At Hanging Rock never met a Dutch tilt or a wind chime it didn’t like—both are fine in small doses, but these doses are far from small, and by the time the series enters its somewhat bloated sixth hour, they’ve far outstayed their welcome.

It’s not that going big and bold is an inherently bad idea. The costume and production designers go big, and while the latter could have gone easier on the twinkly chimes, the results can’t really be argued. Picnic At Hanging Rock looks and sounds terrific, but the choices aren’t just gorgeous; they’re also thoughtful—that’s true of Edie Kurzer’s work in particular, whose costuming subtly underlines the relationships, emotional undercurrents, and broader themes of the story. It’s a lot, but it’s the right kind of a lot, and like Dormer’s performance, these choices skirt right up to the line of the ridiculous without ever crossing over. Had the writers and directors of this series been better at walking that line, Picnic At Hanging Rock might be more than a decent series with rich production values and a performance that blows the doors down. Instead, it’ll do what one of its young women advises another to do, and stay in between—far from forgettable, but unlikely to haunt your dreams.