Reworking acclaimed Australian films has become something of a thing Down Under. It could be argued this lack of originality is to do with brand recognition of old titles, but does storytelling not survive through retelling and reinvention? We have to get over our objections and suspicions of remakes, because not all remakes are bad.
Hot on the heels of last year’s cooly received Wake in Fright television adaptation is a six-part reimagining of Picnic at Hanging Rock, famously made for the big screen in 1975 and based on the acclaimed novel by Joan Lindsay. 1990s ‘Second Wave’ film, Romper Stomper, has also recently been done for the small screen. While Geoffrey Wright’s controversial Neo-Nazi saga and Wake in Fright are very much cult concerns, Peter Weir’s Picnic… is a giant of the 1970s national cinema renaissance, a beautifully made art movie the country had never dared make before. Deciding to remake it is incredibly ballsy stuff.
There exists a mythology around Lindsay’s novel, that it’s based on true events. Well, to use a very current term, that’s ‘fake news’, but never let the truth get the way of a good yarn. Lindsay framed the novel as historical fiction and deliberately muddied the waters in her book’s foreword, which asked the reader to make up his or her mind as to the veracity of the tale they were about to read. The crux of the plot is this: On Valentine’s Day, 1900, four schoolgirls and a teacher vanish into thin air at a local nature spot. It’s as if the land, the ancient-beyond-ancient Australian outback, swallowed them up – an enigmatic and deeply unsettling mystery.
Episodes 1 and 2 of Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018) largely follow the plot of the film to the point of the girls’ disappearance and the discovery of Irma (Samara Weaving), one of the girls who disappeared that strange afternoon at Hanging Rock. The major – indeed, crucial – difference is the opening up of the story, which largely centres on Mrs. Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), the pommie headmistress of Appleyard College, a swish finishing school for upper-class girls in Victoria. Hester’s backstory looks very dicey indeed, judging from what is gleaned during these opening chapters. The reconfiguration of Miranda, the lead girl in the novel and film – who is memorably described as a ‘Botticelli angel’ – is another fascinating change. Here, Miranda (Lily Sullivan) is less ethereal and more down to earth. While not quite a tomboy, she’s no longer the otherworldly figure of the film. It makes the Botticelli line ring false, when its uttered at the moment Miranda and her friends leave to explore the rocks (exactly as in Weir’s movie). Fans of Orange is the New Black will also note Yael Stone among the cast, playing dowdy, Bible-thumping school teacher Miss Lumley. It’s initially strange to hear Stone speaking in her native Aussie accent, and her performance is a world – indeed, a century – away from Lorna, the deluded shopaholic thief with a big heart.
Episodes 1 and 2 are helmed by Larysa Kondracki and it’s abundantly clear from the use of electro music, snazzy editing and surprising use of humour that Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled look to be major stylistic influences on Picnic’s new look. Needless to say, it’s all very different from Weir’s soft-focus visuals, which lent the film a febrile atmosphere. Picnic 2018 has a more expressionist look, incorporating a gothic, even nightmarish, ambience, where reveries and waking reality are blurred. This is most apparent in a scene during episode 2, when Hester wakes up, sees her husband, talks to him, then realises aloud that she’s very much still sleeping.
Another influence might be surrealist Jean Cocteau, whose famed slow-motion sequences in Beauty and the Beast (1946), lent a stunning visual grace to the fairy tale adaptation. Here, the use of slow motion furthers the dreamy quality of the storytelling; its best use is the long shot of Irma Leopold (brilliantly played by Samara Weaving) crossing a stream, watched on by a toff (Harrison Gilbertson). The elegance of slow-motion in creating a stretched, unnatural moment brings a distinctness to proceedings.
Dormer, Stone and the rest of the cast are uniformly excellent and Hester Appleyard’s story is very intriguing, especially since her air of refinement and ladylike bourgeois stiffness perhaps hide a person pretending to be highborn, when really their origins are much humbler. It’s too early to tell what overarching themes and subtexts are at play, although the series does tease class conflict, women under the patriarchy and tensions wrought by colonialism. The racism of the era is not airbrushed, either, with derogatory terms used to describe First Australians in several scenes, one of whom stars as a student at Appleyard’s College (Madeleine Madden’s Marion Quade), the illegitimate daughter of a high society fellow. On the basis of the preview screened at the Berlin Film Festival, Picnic at Hanging Rock looks set to deliver the goods, running with the ball, intent on fashioning its own identity apart from the book and film, while being entirely respectful to both.