Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Many Colors of the Ever-Prismatic Picnic at Hanging Rock [Contributor: Melanie]

Picnic at Hanging Rock began its enigmatic life as a book in 1967 by Joan Lindsey. It received international attention and a place as a lasting legend in Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation. In 2018, it has suddenly seen a stunning and eerie revival as an Amazon limited series. Coming out of nowhere to grace the internet with its presence last Friday, Amazon’s new six-episode miniseries tells the classic story with a decidedly Lynchian approach and blunt examination of the story’s originally subtle themes.

On Valentine’s Day in 1900, in the rural Australian colony of Victoria, three young women and a teacher go missing from a finishing school during a picnic outing to a local wonder known as Hanging Rock. The resulting frenzy and paranoia in the town makes up a sinister and threatening story about the breakdown of the Old Order, the fluidity of female intimacy, and the dangers of colonization in a wild land. The original novel — written as a nonfiction account — has become a legend similar to Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, blending history with fiction to pass into folklore. The 1975 film gave an ethereal aura to the story and still features one of the most blood curdling screams I’ve heard in film before.

In 2018, the story gets an expert update.

The series stars Natalie Dormer as Mrs. Hester Appleyard, a widow and the headmistress of Appleyard College with — as you might imagine in any role Natalie Dormer plays — a mysterious past. Lily Sullivan plays Miranda Reid, the daughter of a cattle farmer who serves as the mischievous ringleader to the senior girls. Samara Weaving is Irma Leopold, the highest ranking girl at the college and the only missing girl to return from the rock. Madeleine Madden is Marion Quade, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Australian who is among the missing girls. Lola Bessis is Dianne de Poitiers, the college’s French tutor. And Harrison Gilbert is Michael Fitzhubert, the nephew of a local landowner who was sent to Australia “for his own good.”


The story is, first and foremost, about the breakdown of traditional aristocracy and the decay of the Old Order at the end of the Victorian era (the story is chronologically placed less than a year before Queen Victoria’s death). Irma Leopold, a member of the Rothschild family, ranks highest among the wealthy schoolgirls at Appleyard College. Yet she defers to Miranda Reid, the daughter of a cattle farmer. In fact, in one of the show’s more forward scenes depicting the thin line of sensuality in female intimacy, Irma’s outright romantic experimentation with Miranda is rejected. This flashback is followed not long after by Irma’s proclamation in the present that she had always hated Miranda. Their antagonistic, intimate, and competitive relationship is a metric for the world around them that they represent: the supplantation of the Old Order of aristocracy by the nouveau riche.

Mrs. Appleyard herself represents this infiltration from one of her first lines, musing that anyone can play the part of an aristocrat. Her origins remain one of the show’s underlying points of tension and her obvious position as a social climber is a catalyst for paranoia as she’s sucked farther and farther into a hole when the girls go missing without a trace. Her unraveling mind, vivid nightmares, and alcohol-induced hallucinations tell a story of burgeoning disorder within an age-old institution, undone by the sudden power structure shift.


Another major theme of the show is female sexuality, both as a repressed part of women’s identities and a fluid part of their romantic world. There are moments that are more straightforward than others: Marion and Miss McCraw — the teacher who went missing with the three girls — have a clandestine and not overtly defined personal relationship. Miranda commands a magnetism from her female companions. Sara’s misplaced, schoolgirl crush on the older girl and Irma’s resentful attraction to her are driving forces behind both characters and serve as the backdrop to many interactions. Michael Fitzhubert, the last person to see the girls before they went missing, is drawn to Miranda’s freedom (he himself is heavily implied to be a gay man in a Victorian world).

Miranda’s freedom also represents a female awakening, precariously placed at the turn of the century. Miranda refuses to wear corsets, immediately takes her stockings off once they’re at the picnic, and wears pants when she’s back at home. As the girls climb higher and higher up the rock, they shed more and more clothes and fall asleep in sensual piles on the formation. There’s also a poignant scene where Miranda is stripped naked by her two friends when they help ready her for bed.

In the end, Miranda, her freedom, and her sexuality win out as the world collapses around the rock and she remains mysteriously absent and — ultimately — untouched by the chaos she brought upon the town and the world it represents.


The final major theme of this story is that of colonization, and the dangers posed against a group of people who enter into a world they know nothing about. The rock itself seems to be fighting back against its own colonization. This is even more prominent in the original film where the rock itself seems to be a character. But, in all versions of the story, time seems to stop around the rock: watches stall, people fall into deep slumbers for hours, we watch as time speeds ahead and overlaps itself in an amazingly well done final sequence showing the missing girls, the days of searching for them, and the escalating madness of Mrs. Appleyard all seemingly happening at once upon Hanging Rock.

It’s a commentary on the rejection of foreign colonizers by the land and the inability of these foreigners to exert any control over it. Ultimately, our main characters either succumb to the land or find themselves leaving completely. Only the rock remains standing when all is said and done.

You won’t find answers to any secrets in Picnic at Hanging Rock but you will find a tantalizing story interwoven with enough criticisms and metaphors to fill up a college lecture (and they have). You can watch Picnic at Hanging Rock on Amazon Prime now.


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