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Picnic at Hanging Rock

Posted on the 06 December 2022 by Cathy Leaves @cathyleaves
Picnic at Hanging Rock

At the beginning of the six-episode adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, Natalie Dormer’s Mrs Appleyard is inspecting an estate on the outskirts of a small Victorian town, kilometres away from the city of Ballarat. She is in black, wearing a face veil, creating the impression that she is a rich, eccentric widow. The realtor suggests a property closer to town, but Mrs Appleyard has found exactly what she was looking for: a place remote enough to provide safety for a woman on the run, and the promise of a new identity, so very far away from England. 

The mansion is turned into a finishing school for girls, with a student populace as diverse as the small group of teachers that Mrs Appleyard hand-selects. The four girls we’ll be focusing on are Miranda Reid, whose family is not aristocratic but has a cattle station (her brothers will inherit, she will have to marry instead), Marion, the daughter of a local politician, loved but born out of wedlock with an Aboriginal woman and now conveniently hidden away, Irma Leopold, who arrives like a celebrity, the daughter of a rich British family, and Sara, an orphan with a loving care-taker, younger than the other three girls but deeply devoted to them, especially Miranda. The teachers are illustrious, too, and all share that Appleyard College provides them with a reprieve of some kind (Miss McCraw is queer, Dora Lumley is running away from her truly despicable, controlling brother). It is as if Mrs Appleyard knows that the varied desperations of these women provide shelter, or leverage, for her: after all, every aspect of her back story is a lie, and she has selected the women who surround her based on whether they also hold damaging secrets. 

The tension of the show is the tension of Australia, which here, transitioning from 1899 to 1900, is on the cusp of becoming a country. Beyond the gates of Appleyard College, beyond the beautiful English garden filled with roses, is the bush, which is repeatedly, especially by the British characters, described as unsettlingly unruly, untameable, wild. The colonists have attempted to recreate England, but it hasn’t quite worked, and many of the characters are only here, in Australia, because something has gone wrong back home. Michael Fitzhubert is there because something scandalous has occurred at University, something perhaps connected to his deep longing for Albert, who works his uncle’s estate. Mrs Appleyard herself is escaping from her husband, a criminal. It is unclear why precisely Irma is there, whose globe-trotting parents seem disinterested in her, but they couldn’t have sent her further away from the tabloids. 

The tension is between the idea of recreating the class structure of England – literally, but also by attempting to tame the country itself, the landscape – and the realisation that this attempt is ultimately doomed. Something new is already happening, the regular people in town seem to be living new lives, unconcerned with England, rooted in their new home. The girls, who attend this college that is meant to resemble what they would find in England (a failed attempt, as Iris outlines later, too many little slip-ups that prove how much of an imposter Mrs Appleyard is), are yearning for a place beyond the gates. The series begins with the titular picnic, from which three of the girls and one of the teachers do not return. In a hypnotic scenes, clocks appear to be standing still, the air flickers, and when the sleeping picnickers awake, the girls are missing. 

Before we see much of the girls themselves, we see them through the eyes of Michael Fitzhubert, who follows them into the wilderness, entranced by their freedom. It’s a viewpoint that resembles the boys in The Virgin Suicides – not really sexual, but profoundly fascinated, especially by Miranda who appears to be essentially free in a way that seems impossible. The search for them turns up nothing, and ends after a week, with the knowledge that nobody could survive in the bush that long. Michael keeps looking, and it’s as if the search becomes something beyond obsession, a kind of metamorphosis from which he emerges changed (later, he will insist on being called Mike, he will leave his privileged upbringing behind to follow Albert on his adventures). He does find Irma, dehydrated but otherwise unhurt. 

Why did the girls disappear? A teacher tells them about the rock in class, about the idea of making a pact, a kind of promise to lead an authentic, free life, away from what is asked from them. Miranda does not want to get married, Marion, who has been offered to remain at the college if she is willing to hide from the parents, does not want to live a life of hiding. She is in love with Mrs McCraw (the scenes of her reading The Turn of the Screw to her teacher, a mutual seduction through the horrors of Henry James’ novel, are some of the most tender), but regardless of how intimate they are, she is told they will have to live in the in-between, a place that Marion has always inhabited but can’t face staying in. Sara watches – her story is the most tragic. She is deeply loved by all the girls, but also always on the outside. Whatever violence there is in the way that Appleyard College attempts to shape these girls into English women, it becomes literal in her body. She cuts herself, and she becomes a target for Mrs Appleyard once she discovers her secret. Her eventual death is all the sadder for how close she comes to being rescued – she is Albert’s sister, and he is desperate to be reunited with her, but she dies before he can find her. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock functions like a mystery – why did the girls run, where are they now – but there are no straightforward answers here for the town policeman who keeps looking for them. The resolution is as dreamlike as the untameable nature of the country beyond the gates.  The Aboriginal bushrangers who help the policeman in his search are the only ones who comprehend that there are no answers here – they tell him to go home, wherever that may be. 

2018, created by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, starring Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden, Inez Currõ, Lola Bessis, Harrison Gilbertson, Philip Quast, Yael Stone, James Hoare, Anna McGahan, Jonny Pasvolsky. 

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