Picnic at Hanging Rock BBC review: the spooky classic is given intriguing new life on TV

Joan Lindsay’s classic 1967 story was turned into a mesmerising 1975 film – but the new TV series manages to hold its own

(BBC)

Anyone mesmerised by Peter Weir’s haunting 1975 classic movie Picnic at Hanging Rock may have felt inclined to give this TV series a miss.

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His dreamy, erotically-charged take on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel about the mysterious disappearance of a small group of schoolgirls in the Australian Outback is a sublime piece of film craft, complete with wonderfully eerie soundtrack.

But now that same story has been adapted again into a six-part TV series. And fortunately for fans of the book or the film (or both), it works. Extremely well.

In Weir’s film version, the focus is principally on the girls. However here in the TV series there is more weight given to Miss Appleyard the head teacher, played by Natalie Dormer.

In the original film, where the character is played by Rachel Roberts, Miss Appleyard seems very much a stock authoritarian – a snobby Brit from the Old World. Here there is more to her; she’s not what she seems, not least because she seems to have taken on a new identity.

“Goodbye Hester, hello Widow Appleyard,” Dormer says in cockney voiceover, as her character is first glimpsed looking round the empty building that is to become Appleyard College. She is a widow, she claims, her background is deliciously ambiguous, although it’s a fair bet that the mysterious male figure she sees in her dreams could hold the key to her real identity.

Natalie Dormer as Mrs Appleyard in Picnic at Hanging Rock
Natalie Dormer as Mrs Appleyard in Picnic at Hanging Rock

The three main girls of the story, Miranda, Irma and Marion, are much more modern creatures than they are in either the book or the film, where they are presented as late Victorian maidens in ethereal flowing dresses. Here they wouldn’t look out of place in a punky girl band, and there is no question that they are the most popular kids in the in the school.

Miranda (played beautifully by Lily Sullivan) in particular is a captivating character, almost tomboyish at first. As she is in the book, she’s a country girl, with four brothers back in a farming station in northern Queensland. But here she’s more rounded, far less idealised – a fact rather neatly demonstrated in one of her very first scenes when we see her peeing in a chamber pot in her dorm.

Another new scene sees her attends a fete where she is approached by a randy soldier who is set to sail off to the Boer War –  and whom she stabs in the foot with a nasty-looking pitchfork. A Picnic, quite rightly, for the #MeToo Generation.

The key moment where Miranda turns away from the picnic to explore the rock is replicated almost exactly as it was seen in the 1975 film – with one quirky difference. Here Miranda sticks her tongue out, signalling the cheek and modern verve of this retelling.

The series also provides lots of beautiful shots of Hanging Rock itself – the magnificent (and real) geological oddity 50 or so miles from Melbourne, ravishing in the Victoria sunlight.

My only hope – or fear – is that this reimagining retains the story’s key supernatural elements, which seep into the tale and are so important to it.

So far it has kept true to the novel’s spirit while fashioning something new and interesting. Quite an achievement, especially when another screen version has already proved so hauntingly effective.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
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Picnic at Hanging Rock continues on BBC2