Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Since I have never read the book or seen the original film, I had only the new adaptation to judge in terms of personal merit. It's both a frustrating story without an ending and a picturesque tale with modern overtones in its fun score and hot pink title. Oh, and the costumes are gorgeous.

Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) arrives at a stately Australian mansion dressed as a widow and inspects the property with a cynical eye. She intends to build a school for established young ladies, and guard their purity with her life. A year later, she has a flourishing business, but her most problematic student is the passionate, outdoorsy, risk-taking Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan). Best friends with the upper-crust Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving) and the quieter Marion Quade (Madeline), Miranda wanders away from the picnic at a local haunted landmark and... is never seen again, along with her companions.

In the chaotic events that follow, Hester fears the investigation will expose her own dark secrets.

Like the book and the earlier adaptation, the series has no official ending -- it does not solve its own mystery. You should know that going in, since it flies in the face of how most genre pieces run. You're left to ponder and not know, to theorize and build things from clues, much as if you are in the midst of an actual cold case. This can be frustrating, because not only is the main plot unresolved, a lot of the minor decisions and actions along the way have no real answers either. Is Hester hard on specific students because they remind her of herself? Is she punishing them for bad behavior? Why did she hire some teachers and fire others?

Characters come and go, their storylines unraveling into nothingness -- which makes me wonder why the plot needed them. For example, a wealthy male neighbor's growing romantic attraction for a ranch hand. He's necessary only until they find evidence of the girls, then he rides out of the plot. Why? And why is the local police constable so chill with everyone leaving town? Has he ruled out foul play? Does he suspect no one at the school? None of the teachers? None of the girls? None of the neighbors? It makes no sense.

The first episode is exquisite; intense, well-paced, absorbing. Some scenes are gorgeous, such as Mrs. Appleyard waiting with a lantern for the return of her girls and watching them descend in a flurry of white, amid billowing waves of fog. Subsequent episodes have a similar romantic, dream-like quality and many of them end on cliffhangers, where you must wait a good ten minutes into the next episode to find out what happens next. It tells the story through a series of flashbacks, out of sequence but that add up into a collective narrative. Pay attention, or you'll fall behind. The costuming is beautiful. The acting is excellent, but the pacing drags in episode 3.

It has a marvelous performance from Natalie Dormer, who makes you feel sorry for her and hate her. She has all the best costumes. But the story was a bit heavy-handed -- too eager to show rather than infer, trying to pack too many things into the story that seem "relevant" (cutting, same-sex attraction, suicidal thoughts, threatened rape, abuse, etc), and did not feel the nudity was necessary. It was there just to earn an MA rating.

 

Sexual Content:
Lots of nudity, some with homoerotic overtones. A woman has a bad dream about being naked in a crowd (backside nudity); a man sees another man skinny-dipping -- they hold a conversation while the man stands naked on the shore (backside nudity); a man shoots another man in the face and he falls off the bed -- his full frontal nudity is front and center in the camera (as it watches a woman hiding under the bed) for over a minute; three girls undress and prepare for bed (backside nudity on all three, in two separate flashbacks). We briefly see a woman's breast after she spends the night with her boyfriend. Women lie around in corsets and compare body parts; two girls kiss one another, lingeringly; a woman confesses to same-sex attraction for a teacher (they spend a lot of time gazing at each other, and reading a book together). A man seems to have interest in both a woman and a man. A teacher finds a wooden sex toy and keeps it (shown several times). Twice, girls lift their skirts to reveal parts of themselves to their teacher for inspection (off screen). A soldier puts his hands in his pants and talks nastily to a girl, who stabs him in the foot with a pitchfork.
 
Language:
One of c*nt, one f-word, one abuse of Christ's name, various minor profanities and insults.
 
Violence:
Girls are slapped, have their hands beaten with birch rods, and struggle with each other. A girls stabs a boy's foot with a pitchfork; her teacher rips it out. A woman threatens to hit a child with a hairbrush. We see the girl has been cutting her legs; her teacher puts rubbing alcohol on it. A dead body is found in the garden. A woman jumps to her death (off-screen). A man is shot. A woman sticks her fingers in a man's bullet wound to hurt him. References to abuse (sexual, physical, etc). A man and a woman burn to death in an accidental fire.

Other:
The Christian teacher is holier than thou, hypocritical, and violent. A man poops inside the house on the rug in revenge. A teacher finds a dead animal nailed to the door. A policeman vomits into a bush.