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Picnic At Hanging Rock first look – full-throttle reboot of an Australian classic

Picnic at Hanging Rock TV series
‘It takes no time for the first episode of the new Picnic at Hanging Rock to establish a strikingly different groove.’ Photograph: Foxtel

It is hardly original to say the director Peter Weir’s 1975 masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock evokes a dream-like ambience. A quote even opens the film, from the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe, about pondering reality as a dream within a dream. Weir indulged in contradictions: a mood ethereal but haunting; a tone realistic but fantastical; a story open-ended but grimly final.

Though technically a re-adaptation (of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel) rather than a remake, the shadow of Weir’s film looms large over Foxtel’s upcoming six-part television series. It will inevitably draw comparisons, and cries of, ‘Why even go there?’

It takes no time for the first episode (which had its first-ever press screening on Wednesday in Melbourne, and forms the extent of this review) to establish a strikingly different groove. Gone are the pan flutes and soft hues. Gone is the elegance. This is a crazier, full throttle, more literally colourful dream, brightness and contrast cranked through the roof.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
‘The new Picnic has the stickiness of the Kettering Incident, the gloss of Luhrmann’s Gatsby, the candied sheen of Tim Burton’s Wonka or Wonderland.’ Photograph: Foxtel

The grass is so green it looks like bubble-wrapped astro turf. When sunlight collides with women in white dresses, the effect is less angelic than retina-burning. The new Picnic has the stickiness of the Kettering Incident, the gloss of Luhrmann’s Gatsby, the candied sheen of Tim Burton’s Wonka or Wonderland, as if the frame has been covered in goo from a melted rainbow.

If this sounds more like a nightmare than a dream, perhaps that’s the point. The wild texture of Garry Phillips’ cinematography is offset by comparatively sober editing. There are lengthy, lingering shots, as in the introductory moments depicting enigmatic widow Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer, aka Margaery Tyrell from Game of Thrones) inspecting a mansion for sale in Macedon, Victoria.

Appleyard – a basket case now, by the way – transforms the property into a school for young ladies. Pupils include Irma (Samara Weaving), Marion (Madeleine Madden) and Miranda (Lily Sullivan, recently in Romper Stomper and Jungle). Dora Lumley (Yael Stone) is the headmistress’s loyal second-in-command.

Canadian-born establishing director Larysa Kondracki (passing the baton, after the first three episodes, to Amanda Brotchie and Michael Rymer) continues a long tradition of foreign filmmakers exploring Australian landscapes in intoxicating detail – notably, Scottish filmmaker Harry Watt in The Overlanders, fellow Canadian Ted Kotcheff in Wake in Fright, and Englishman Nicolas Roeg in Walkabout.

While Weir’s Picnic is a hermetically sealed universe, existing in its own ethereal space, the television series is zeitgeisty, clearly connected to heightened interest around female-led and empowered narratives. In the first episode Miranda fends off a horny boy in the stables by driving a pitchfork into his feet.

Appleyard, however, has hijacked the story this time around, writer Beatrix Christian (with a couple of later episodes penned by Alice Addison) configuring her as a Miss Peregrine-esque leader: maternal but spunky and chic. Natalie Dormer’s terrific, scenery-chewing performance punches through the thick, inebriating atmosphere around her. The remaining cast might need a little longer than the first episode to do the same.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
‘The series is clearly connected to heightened interest around female-led and empowered narratives.’
Photograph: Foxtel

The return to Hanging Rock is part of a current, nostalgia-tapping trend in Australian film and television. In recent years we’ve seen sequels/remakes/adaptations of Mad Max, The Devil’s Playground, Turkey Shoot, Wolf Creek, Romper Stomper and Wake in Fright – and that, erm, fake trailer for Crocodile Dundee.

It’s impossible to call it after only one episode, but the Picnic at Hanging Rock redux appears to belong to the upper crust of the movement. It’ll take more than a single ep to get a grip on where it’s going thematically, but the writing on the wall suggests the striking contemporary style will meaningfully add to an old, well-probed text (and vice versa).

And hot damn, the show looks amazing. It’s a blast to watch it teeter on the brink between atmospheric excellence and stylistic overkill – for now, at least, keeping on the good side of the divide. You could argue this is a case of style over substance, though the same argument could be made, however foolishly, of Weir’s classic.

The source material’s mysterious beauty registers here on a different level; perhaps a different state of consciousness. It’s as if we fell asleep, woke up, then fell asleep again.

• Picnic at Hanging Rock screens at Berlin film festival on 19 and 23 February, and has its world television premiere on 6 May on Foxtel

This article titled "Picnic At Hanging Rock first look – full-throttle reboot of an Australian classic" was written by Luke Buckmaster, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 14 February 2018 07.21am

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