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Venture Into The Australian Wilderness For A Chilling 'Picnic At Hanging Rock'

<em>Picnic at Hanging Rock</em> was written by Joan Lindsay in 1967 and made into a very moody and memorable movie by director Peter Weir in 1975. Now, a new TV miniseries picks up the story of an ill-fated picnic in rural, turn-of-the-century Australia.
Xinger Xanger Photography
Amazon Prime Video
Picnic at Hanging Rock was written by Joan Lindsay in 1967 and made into a very moody and memorable movie by director Peter Weir in 1975. Now, a new TV miniseries picks up the story of an ill-fated picnic in rural, turn-of-the-century Australia.

The legend goes like this: On Valentine's Day 1900, at a remote prep school for young women outside Melbourne, Australia, several students and their teacher slipped away from a holiday picnic, ventured to a steep and storied landmark named Hanging Rock — and vanished.

When director Peter Weir's movie Picnic at Hanging Rock was released in the 1970s (it was an adaptation of Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel) the story was widely presumed to be — and even was publicized as — true. Though that theory is less accepted these days, the legend (and its unresolved ending) still require that the story itself be approached and told somewhat ambiguously.

That's the challenge of a new, six-part TV miniseries premiering on the Amazon Prime streaming service on Friday. But because the miniseries length allows for an expanded narrative, this new version ends up being stronger and significantly more powerful than the original.

The new Picnic at Hanging Rock is adapted by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, with a trio of directors framing the story visually. And the visuals are both important and arresting. The girls in this Australian finishing school wear bright, free-flowing white cotton dresses, while the woman running the school — the formidable Mrs. Appleyard — wears a series of brightly colored, tightly constricting outfits.

The students stand out as starkly as the oppressed women of The Handmaid's Tale, only their uniforms are lily white, not blood red. And Mrs. Appleyard, played by Natalie Dormer from HBO's Game of Thrones, wears her clothing as both a shield and a disguise.

When Mrs. Appleyard talks to her students before releasing them to mingle at a local garden party, she's like a military officer inspecting her troops. She explains that her girls are to pay particular attention to the brave young men who will be attending the party, because they're soldiers about to head off to war. Then she assigns the girls a research paper on the Boer War — and when a student named Marion impolitely asks who will read and grade the papers, Mrs. Appleyard gives the task to Marion herself, as a punishment.

Mrs. Appleyard is a fascinating figure, and this new Picnic at Hanging Rock fleshes her out substantially by showing her in extended flashbacks. Her past, it turns out, is much less civilized and savory than her present status, which explains why she fled to the Australian outback in the first place. And it also explains why when she has to drop her civilized veneer, she can do so chillingly.

In one scene, Mrs. Appleyard enters the stables as a young soldier attempts to molest one of her students. The girl responds by stabbing the boy's boot with a pitchfork. The school headmistress yanks the pitchfork from his foot, instructs the girl to wash the blood off her dress, and tells the boy she'll get him morphine for the pain only if he agrees to say that his injured foot was trampled by a horse. He meekly goes along.

Dormer, as Mrs. Appleyard, is even more menacing and captivating here than she was as Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones. She's a big part of why this new Picnic works so well — and Samara Weaving, playing a rebellious student named Irma, is another.

But there's also the depiction of the world that both the students and the teacher, as women, must endure that makes this TV version of Picnic at Hanging Rock so compelling. The near future of The Handmaid's Tale is a chilling place to visit — but so is the distant past of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.