Jeanne Jakle: Amazon’s expanded ‘Hanging Rock’ is seductively eerie
The central mystery of TV’s new adaptation of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” — the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of three teenage schoolgirls and a teacher during an outing in the wild on Valentine’s Day — may not seem that unusual for a medium full of crime dramas.
But it is, as viewers will see while watching the series’ strange, seductive story unfold on Amazon Prime starting May 25.
Even those who remember the haunting 1975 film, based on Joan Lindsay’s hit 1967 novel set in turn-of-the-century Australia, will discover something fresh here.
That movie from esteemed Australian filmmaker Peter Weir had a dreamlike, highly ethereal feel, all soft-focus and lovely pale tones set to pan flute music, creating a romantic effect that worked brilliantly in contrast to the eerie plot.
This six-part “Hanging Rock” is more nightmarish than dreamy in its execution — starting with the cruelty of its headmistress Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer, “Game of Thrones”), a much younger and more physically strong version of Rachel Roberts’ movie character. Her squinty-eyed iciness and insistence on stern discipline is a protective front for what we soon learn is a lurid past.
Also new is the series’ vivid photography, its breathtaking looks at the landscape around the school for girls, which, depending on the moment, register as either astonishingly beautiful or disturbingly treacherous.
It also paints the core theme — repressed, Victorian-era sexuality confronting exotic, sensual nature — with a more modern brush.
Yes, we still see those memorable white dresses and prim straw hats, and hear over and over again the importance of “purity.” However, the movie’s subtle suggestion of what the trussed-up girls may be feeling is replaced by more candid scenes of nudity and sexual experimentation.
A highly engaging example of this is a bedroom scene featuring the three friends at the heart of the story, wild child Miranda (Lily Sullivan), lonely heiress Irma (Samara Weaving, Hugo Weaving’s niece) and the illegitimate Marion (Madeleine Madden). She’s a young woman of color who’s called the “dark one” — another change from the original that’s more reflective of contemporary thinking about diversity in casting and concerns about racism.
The scene takes place after a punishment ritual involving Miranda, who, earlier that day, had listened to her inner tomboy and taken flight, barefooted, to some nearby stables.
Sullivan is marvelous in this sequence, communicating both vulnerability and strength as she deals with the frightening sexual advances of an unwelcome soldier who stalks her among the horses. She jams his foot with a pitchfork, leaving him howling in pain.
Her truancy is repaid by the cruel lashing of her palms over and over, which is orchestrated by Appleyard and executed by her creepy sidekick, unctuous bible studies teacher Dora Lumley, played effectively by a severely groomed Yael Stone, who’s shockingly different here from hopeless romantic Lorna Morello in “Orange is the New Black.”
Miranda is comforted afterward by her two friends, as well as Sarah (Inez Curro), a younger, similarly spirited girl whom Miranda has taken under her wing and who steals a bottle of whiskey for her wincing friend.
In the privacy of their boudoir, the older trio do what adolescent girls whose feverish feelings are kept bottled up tend to do — explore their desires with each other. The intimacy of these moments are well-played and fearlessly honest.
As for the all-important scene that the story hangs on — when the girls, along with mathematics teacher Greta McCraw (Anna McGahan) vanish during their picnic at Hanging Rock — that plays pretty much the same as the film’s, down to a vulgar description afterward by young Edith (Ruby Rees), who runs away from the rock screaming.
She tells her classmates that her last glimpse of teacher McCraw was of her climbing the rock skirt-less in her pantaloons, suggesting that she might be behind some wickedness that took the girls from them.
Also dominant here is the character of Mike (Harrison Gilbertson), a rich man’s son who feels stifled by his class. After crossing paths with the girls before their disappearance, he becomes obsessed with the puzzling event and decides to return to the rock and investigate with the help of valet Albert (James Hoare).
Scenes between Mike and his strapping servant also bristle with repressed sexuality.
The cast is, across the board, strong, the standout being Dormer, who turns even the slightest grimace or glance beneath her mysterious sunglasses into a chilling experience.
Although the original film by Weir was unquestionably a work of art, there’s plenty of room for this expertly scripted longer interpretation that allows for more character development and extended exploration of how the unsolved mystery at the rock unsettles not only the school, but the community around it.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” also manages to do something that eludes most fare on television. It brings us a fresh, satisfying and intensely memorable viewing experience that likely will stay in your head for days, if not longer.
Jeanne Jakle’s column appears Thursdays and Sundays in mySA. Read more of her columns here. | email@example.com | @JakleJ