‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ Review: Amazon’s Series Takes Bold Leaps but Misses the Landing

     May 24, 2018

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On a hot and hazy Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of girls from an Australian finishing school embarked on a picnic to a mysterious monolith. Some of them were never seen again. The tale, based in folklore and made into the novel Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay in 1967, as well as Peter Weir’s classic movie version in 1975, is now being elongated into a 6-episode series for Amazon. Through each adaptation, the defining characteristics remain the same: the story plays out like a mid-day reverie, the mysteries are hinted at but never solved, and the style is crucial. When it comes to the new series, that latter aspect is taken very seriously. So much so that in the end, it’s all it has.

Hanging Rock is really the story of Hester Appleyard (a dynamic Natalie Dormer), the school’s cold headmistress with a dark past. Though the romance and drama surrounds the three missing girls — the worshipped Miranda (Lily Sullivan), her best friend Marion (Madeleine Madden), and a new girl who they have grown to love, Irma (Samara Weaving, who leaves the biggest impression) — it is Appleyard who opens and closes the series. She is unrelenting in her discipline, perhaps out of her fear of being outed as a fraud, but her practiced restraint is in perfect contrast to the freedom that the schoolgirls long for, and which seems to call out to them from the rock.

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Image via Amazon Studios

Amazon’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is written by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, and directed by Michael Rymer, Amanda Brotchie, as well as showrunner Larysa Kondracki. It takes its influences from Weir’s film (as well it should, as it’s an exceptional work), but it infuses it with its own modern sensibilities. Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, there’s something of a punk rock vibe to the proceedings, with hot pink title cards, pop sensibilities, and bold colors. Natalie Dormer gets the most cutting-edge style in the series, as Mrs. Appleyard’s garments trade traditional colonial fabrics for silks with bold prints and south Asian influences. The girls, meanwhile, are attired in gauzy dresses made of muslin and lace, though everyone has wonderfully styled hair (an essential element). The sight of fabrics being ruffled by the wind and filtering out the sun is a constant visual, and plays into the sense of dreaminess that saturates the entire season.

In that same sense, there are many things that are hinted at in Picnic at Hanging Rock, but are never quite explored. Thematic ideas like the women wanting to break away from society’s restraints as they’re pulled to the wild Australian bush are clear enough, but there are also hints of abuse in some of the girls’ past, as well as some fledgling sexual impulses with each other. Though one of the relationships is made more overt than the others, for the most part, it just seems like the girls are all obsessed with one another in a way that only teenage girls can be. Miranda, Irma, and Marion aren’t particularly likable, though, nor interesting; they are haughty and sullen frenemies who cling to one another and are fascinated by each other, and they bask in the attention given to them by the younger girls. They rule the school because they are beautiful and unknowable, but that doesn’t always make for a compelling character study.

The series uses the titular picnic as the focal point around which the rest of the narrative spins, including flashbacks to the girls before they disappeared, and more time spent during and after the investigation. The desire here may be to illuminate more of the series’ side characters (including the other teachers, like Yael Stone’s over-the-top Dora Lumley, mistress of Deportment and Bible Studies) or give depth to its main cast, but mostly it just drags. The series very vaguely hints at some possibilities regarding what happened to the girls, but the police never seriously interview anyone in connection with the disappearance, even after a major clue is revealed. And though much time is given to Hester’s background and the past that continues to haunt her, it never feels organically connected to the narrative. The same is true for the scenes of the school girls touching and fussing over one another, and comparing body parts as they kiss and giggle. It feels forced and performative in the way it wants to call attention to women being viewed only as objects, while simultaneously shaming us for looking. The series demands that we be fascinated, without ever giving us a good reason to be.

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Image via Amazon Studios

Picnic at Hanging Rock contains a multitude of promising narrative leads, but it lets them fade away like the the haze of a summer afternoon. It’s gorgeous and often visually stunning, but emotionally hollow. There’s no feeling of connection to the girls, or a reason to like them, including what should be the plucky heroine figure of Sara (Inez Curro), a troubled orphan. Instead, everyone — including teachers such as the constantly baffled French instructor Mme Dianne de Poitiers (Lola Bessis) — comes across as flighty, cold, or malicious. The feelings of obsession that the characters have for one another, like that from a wealthy young man, Michael Fitzhubert (Harrison Gilbertson), who follows the girls to the rock that day, is unlikely to be mirrored by viewers (at least, it wasn’t by this viewer).

Aside from feeling like there are few things scarier than roving groups of teenage girls, Amazon’s Picnic at Hanging Rock lacks definition, as well as the fascination and wonder that Weir’s film had in spades. Though it does have a longer format at its disposal, this version doesn’t make the mistake of using that time to explain any more of the central mystery, but there are more pressing narrative hangups that are never resolved. Dormer commands her scenes and the material in a way no one else in the series does, but while this is Appleyard’s story to tell, she alone cannot save it.

Rating: ★★

Picnic at Hanging Rock premieres Friday, May 25th on Amazon Prime.

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