Last week’s series opener of Picnic Hanging Rock – a new adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s seminal novel – was a curious affair. Inelegantly told and badly scripted, there was also a sense that the wannabe steampunk stylings clashed with the ethereal, woozy Victorian period and setting. I felt it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be – if it wanted to go full steampunk it should have done (like Peaky Blinders with its Nick Cave/White Stripes soundtrack, its high-contrast filters and modern, action-movie stylings), or, if it wanted to go full woozy-goozy and keep the traditional period drama feel it should have done. Instead, it fell between two stools.
Despite its muddled presentation, the central mystery is still beguiling – that of the unexplained disappearance of three mischievous teenage girls at the mysterious, culturally-significant Hanging Rock. But of course, there was another mystery at play here: the provenance of the college’s strict governess, Mrs Appleyard, and how and why she came to be in the middle of the Australian outback. We got tasters of her past thanks to annoying (for her) voices and hidden personalities last week, and this week we got more of the same.
But the fall-out from the disappearance took precedence over everything. Appleyard, perhaps fearing that any publicity might attract prying eyes and inquisitive types, moved the college into lock-down. No one was to leave, and no one was to come in. Edith, the pupil who had survived the ordeal, wasn’t in good shape and wasn’t really much help, and the action oscillated between the search on the rock by the local police force and volunteers like Michael Fitzhubert, the gentrified young man who had last seen the girls alive (and who had a major thing for Miranda). We saw an Aboriginal guide perplexed at the lack of tracks available on the rock itself (Fitzhubert himself had called him a ‘nig-nog’ matter-of-factly, demonstrating the challenge indigenous people had back then), we saw clocks stop again, and there was talk of ghosts and hauntings. We jumped two days ahead, then four. The investigation was carried out at a breathless pace and not particularly deftly. Young Fitzhubert was accused and questioned, then exonerated. After seven days the search was called off.
And then we leapt backwards a whole year to see how Miranda, Irma and Marion first met. They bonded when Miranda was scolded and sadistically punished for playing truant and walking around barefoot (although we didn’t actually see that bit, which was strange). Young Sara was keen to help (she found the tin in Mrs Appleyard’s office as she was snaffling some brandy for Miranda to help with the pain of her caning), but she was shooed away. The three of them, even though they had barely met, formed an instant bond, as if they had always known each other and were linked somehow. Irma and Marion washed and dressed their friend, and it was a touching scene, but slightly odd, too… almost like white witches they became one in shot, blurred together. And, when Greta McCraw in her art class began to tell them about Hanging Rock and the supernatural qualities it was said to hold, all three, especially Miranda, were transfixed.
Back in the present day at Appleyards, things were beginning to get full horror-movie while in lock-down. Edith was beginning to speak in tongues, and all the effects were brought out of the bag – dream sequences, quirky camera angles and blurry effects. The strange and sadistic Dora Lumley began to search the rooms by candlelight and found an enormous ivory phallus under Greta McCraw’s bed and a letter from her mother expressing her deep displeasure at her liking for the weaker sex (ie women). And then Mrs Appleyard herself, a flashback revealing her hiding under a bed, a naked, overweight being shot and rolling onto the floor, Arthur coming over and stealing the victim’s effects and dragging ‘Hester’ from beneath the bed. Was Mrs (Hester) Appleyard a sex worker and a con woman back in England? It seemed that way.
Everywhere you looked, there was a simmering undercurrent of sex and sexuality you felt might bubble over at any time.
Even with Michael Fitzhubert, who was determined to find the girls and prove his father wrong (he thought Michael was a failure). His relationship with his servant Albert had a tinge of the homoerotic about it – Michael and his repressed… well, everything, while Albert was free as a bird, intensely masculine (a sort of Aussie version of DH Lawrence’s Mellors) and prone to stripping off for a skinny dip. Michael didn’t quite know where to look as Albert towelled himself off on the banks of the river, buttocks glistening in the pale moonlight.
Together they formed an interesting investigative team. By the end of the episode, after a whole day looking for them – and his dear Miranda – and then a night on the rock where he thought he saw ghostly figures and Miranda running through the glade, found the girls’ stockings hanging on branches and all sorts, Michael had slipped into a wide-eyed reverie.
I have no idea where this is going. It’s a mess and it’s bonkers and it’s all over the place stylistically and tonally. And yet, like the rock itself, there’s something alluring about it, something supernatural and unexplainable.
FOR OUR EPISODE ONE REVIEW CLICK HERE
FOR OUR FEATURE ON THE CONTROVERSY OF PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK CLICK HERE
FOR AN INTERVIEW WITH NATALIE DORMER CLICK HERE