Based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, the recent mini series of Picnic at Hanging Rock, delivers some well needed drama that has been lacking on the television screen of late. I haven’t read the book or watched the film, which enabled me to watch the series with no preconceptions. I’m not a fan of Natalie Dormer either, although she does give a rather compelling performance as Hester Appleyard. Having read some reviews on social media and other sites, it’s clear that some people don’t understand what the novel or the series is about. Based in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, it’s gothic with a touch of existentialism with flashbacks thrown in, and vivid nightmares that depict the inner fears of the characters. It’s not meant to be straightforward television; if that’s what you want then watch a soap opera or a reality show.
There are six episodes and they are easy to watch, although definitive answers are never given, and scenes flit back and forth from the present to the past.The viewers get a glimpse of each character and their inner fears and their hopes and from that you decide on what really happened.The setting is a old mansion that is bought by a widow named Hester Appleyard in the Australian outback, yet we know from the outset that it’s not her real name. Like many during the era that left England for Australia or America, they wanted a new start with a new name and records were much harder to track down back then. She sets up Appleyard College, a boarding school for young ladies, but Hester is constantly haunted by her past, perhaps her guilt in running away with the stolen money? We know she has secrets, but what are they? On Valentine’s Day a picnic is organized for the girls and the teachers by Hanging Rock, an ancient Aboriginal site where rituals and allegedly sacrifices were made and that’s when not everyone returns.
The music can be haunting in the series and the sudden falling asleep (or a trance) of all the girls, that is all except the main characters; Miranda, Irma, and Marion at the picnic is surreal.They ask permission to get closer to the rock and wander off with Edith in tow who is not part of the clique, but who is unrefined and doesn’t have any friends.
Time stands still, and watches stop at midday, and that includes Michael Fitzhubert, the nephew of a the largest landowner in the area who is picnicking with his aunt and uncle nearby. He follows the girls, and is infatuated with one or more of them. Little is known except he was forced to leave England due to a scandal and Australia seems to be a safe place for misfits. When it’s time to leave, the girls and Miss Greta McGraw are missing. She is never seen going to the rock, and that’s when things seem confusing. Edith runs back to the group alone screaming and crying, but as it’s dark, the search is stopped until daylight.
Meanwhile, back at the college Sara, an orphan whose rich guardian has placed her in the school was punished by having to miss the picnic. She is tormented by Hester and is constantly on the posture board instigated by Miss Dora Lumley, a religious disciplinarian who is eager to please those in authority. When the coach returns and Hester learns of the missing girls and teacher, she automatically assumes it is Arthur, her dead husband who torments her in her dreams.
With the scandal, parents withdraw their children, but Michael Fitzhubert is determined to find the girls and convinces his uncle’s valet, Albert to help him. Several days later he discovers Irma, but is too weak to carry her down. Albert, returns to the rock to find him and manages to carry Irma down, yet after recovering she claims not to remember anything.
Some may wonder what happened to the girls and where their bodies are or did they escape, but the real essence of the novel are the themes it focuses on. It looks at the role of the female in society and how women must fight for their rights, and perhaps use devious means to achieve, that marriage is what one must aspire to (back then and still in some cultures0, and it looks at liberty and freedom, sexual relationships, as well the importance of social status and how those from different classes are treated.
It is revealed in a flashback that Marion has a crush on Miss McGraw the mathematics teacher, and the feelings are reciprocated secretly. Soon Marion will leave school and has been offered a position at the school as a teacher by Hester. It is tempting as it would allow her to remain near Miss McGraw, but both know they can never openly display their affections in public. Meanwhile the other teacher that is left Mlle.de Poitiers is busy trying to look after the remaining girls including Sara who is devastated when Miranda doesn’t return, and tried to talk to Irma about what happened. All know that life at the college will come to an end and their time there merely prolongs the inevitable.
What hope is there for Miranda? She is expected to be a lady and marry well, yet all she desires is freedom and to be equal to her brothers on the cattle ranch. Irma has money, looks, and status being descended from an aristocratic background and is expected to marry well. Sara has an uncertain future, and while having escaped the orphanage yearns for her brother Albert to find her. Once Miranda has gone, she knows life at the college will be unbearable, yet one senses some ingratitude after all she could still have been in the orphanage. Instead she is being educated and eating good food, but she chooses not to make the most of the opportunities presented. Marion knows that her feelings for Greta McGraw can never be openly revealed, yet she pursues her.
On the rock they all dispense with their corsets, symbolic of restriction and a tool to make women conform and that make them to appear to be something they aren’t. The white dresses are symbolic or purity, yet we know this is purely an image. Hester is discovered drinking brandy, something only women of ill repute do, and her dark gowns symbolize her darkness.
The missing women all wanted to escape, and maybe they did? So why did Edith return? She didn’t need to escape anything. Why was Irma discovered? She actually had control of her life, money and status and men would flock to her she assumed. What about Hester? Was she a villain or a victim?
The series is mainly told through flashbacks in a surrealistic manner where time stands still, and we enter the nightmares of some characters, mainly Hester and Sara. Characters such as Dora Lumley show us there are people who are willing to sacrifice what is right to be liked, and that envy and revenge exist even for those who claim to pious. At times some scenes are slow, and the final episode left me wondering why Hester kept the soap tin, and was Miranda just too spoiled and brainwashed the others?
The acting for the most part is good, the costumes believable, the locations look too neat for the uncultivated bush at the time, and the sets look a little too contrived for the 1900s. It’s also hard to imagine when a teacher leaves the school that they pack a single carpet bag with all their possessions, or that girls can climb a crag in heeled boots.
I did enjoy watching it and while the fate of most characters was left literally hanging, the main themes to me were about social standing and that money can’t buy grace or class, and that all women strive for equality even if they remain silent, and are repressed to conform. Money can’t buy the feeling of being free, in love, or happiness. That still applies today, but today the gender and class barriers have been slowly lowered, and people are less inclined to jump from a rock to feel free compared to a century ago.