Picnic at Hanging Rock – Episode 1
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Lilly Sullivan, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden, Inez Currõ, Harrison Gilbertson
Director: Larysa Kondracki
Writers: Beatrix Christian
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, a new series streaming on Amazon, is based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay. It’s a story about a group of young women who disappear without a trace while on a picnic, on Valentine’s Day, 1900. The book was adapted into a two-hour movie directed by Peter Weir back in 1975. But with an almost six-hour running time, this adaptation has the opportunity to be closer to the novel and tell a deeper story.
The casting is spot on. Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer, Game of Thrones) runs the private school for girls. Her mannerisms and behaviours point to a questionable past, one that she is hiding at all costs. Miranda (Lily Sullivan, Camp), strong-willed, wild and not to be crossed, shows both the stable boy and Mrs. Appleyard that she’s not one of the regular girls who are to be auctioned off to some wealthy husband once she graduates. Irma (Samantha Weaving, The Babysitter) is the rich one who catches the eye of more than a few boys. Marion (Madeleine Madden, Tidelands) is the smart one. And younger, but foreshadowed to play an important role, is Miranda’s roommate Sara (Inez Currõ) whose snooping habit and need to please Miranda puts her on a direct confrontational path with Mrs. Appleyard.
For most of the episode, there’s a serene feeling. The colours, the music, the scenes and the action all combine to give off a peaceful and dreamlike atmosphere. At times, it reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides leading to questions about whether what we’re seeing is real or not. But underneath that idyllic surface, trouble brews, and bad things simmer. They threaten to break through and turn that mirror-like surface into a turbulent maelstrom. And in this first episode, it’s when that haunting scream is heard that we know this was only temporary, maybe even a dream. But now, the innocence is gone. It’s an absolutely brilliant start.
If this first episode is a sign of what’s to come in the remaining ones, prepare yourselves for a visual feast. The colours are bright and clear. Each frame is a work of art, as though the characters had walked off of a Monet painting, especially the party and picnic scenes. The school, the gardens and Hanging Rock itself, the sets are vibrant and gorgeous. Set in the Victorian era, the costumes are perfect. However, the showrunners/producers chose to make some changes to the adaptation, by giving it soft steampunk overtones. There are the occasional techno-like music and steampunk looking sunglasses. Though clearly taking place in 1900, these subtle additions modernize the story, making the story more accessible and adding some familiarity.
The imagery is great and helps give the episode a dreamlike, and even supernatural vibe. When the girls are wearing pure white dresses, it’s like sacrificial maidens on their way to slaughter. Seeing only their backs as they face the water, could be seen as a sign of an oncoming cleansing. And what about the silent man sitting in Mrs. Appleyard’s room, dressed in black, who’s apparently unreal? These scenes seamlessly weave their way in and out of the story naturally. It’s inevitable to ask whether everything that is seen on screen is real? Are they dreams? Or a combination of the two?
In an interesting turn of events, time loses its meaning while at the picnic. As the search for the girls begins, all watches are stuck at noon, or is it midnight… Just like in a dream, time becomes irrelevant. Something deeper and perhaps even sinister is happening. You wouldn’t be faulted for asking if there is a supernatural presence behind the disappearances. The subtlety with which this is suggested is perfect. There’s no dialogue to suggest ghosts or some other from-the-beyond element. As of the end of episode one, it’s entirely up to the viewer’s interpretation.
Verdict: WATCH IT. Picnic at Hanging Rock is gorgeous, intriguing, thought-provoking, sexually charged and fun. Natalie Dormer’s presence is an asset, as is the rest of the cast. This first episode sets the tone and the bar high for what is likely to be an outstanding series. And like any work of art, re-watching it, paying attention to different aspects will only be rewarding. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a must watch.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is available on Amazon Prime