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Picnic at Hanging Rock - Review (Spoilers) - The Great Escape



Based on the Gothic Historical novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock comes to life in a lavishly done six part mini-series, hailing from executive producers Jo Porter, Anthony Ellis, and Penny Win, having premiered on Australia's Showcase and distributed to American audiences through Amazon Prime Video.

The story centers around three young ladies (Miranda, Marion, and Irma) and one of their governesses (Greta McCraw), whom all mysterious disappear in 1900 on Valentine's Day when they, and fellow female classmates and chaperones, are allowed to take a picnic at this unruly and exotic location, 'Hanging Rock'.  Viewers soon learn they're also not alone, as many male suspects are eventually introduced. It's a series that encapsulates what a lot of Gothic fiction does best, challenging convention of societal restrictions through escalated states of anxious and pyschosexual existence by pushing character relationships through dizzying blurry lines of impropriety, while examining a theme of fear of discovery through thoughtless fantasies of escapism.

The series takes an intricate look at a spectrum of mostly young women and girls situated at a British-Australian college & finishing school lead by the relentlessly strict and enigmatic Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dorner), all whom are unique in their own rights, showcasing the fact that women themselves do not belong to a singular category with only one way to be or one way to exist. This story reflects what can happen if you try too hard to suppress an identity, but it also possibly criticizes simply being as one will with no restraints. In the same breath it doesn't just highlight characters changing personalities or their flights of fancy, which often then seeks to quash another's and ultimately creates backlashes, but it also looks at class warfare, as many of the characters are coming from different backgrounds and classes with the hope, coming from their parents, that they will be educated and reputable enough to either marry whom they deserve or marry up.

"There are horses that won't be tamed." -Miranda



At the center of the lives of the older girls is Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan). Miranda is a character that seems to exude Australia's natural wild landscape, specifically the Hanging Rock's rugged disorienting unruliness that captivates as as a beautifully elusive idea of universal freedom to be as you like.

"Imagine Ma's face if I were to turn up married with someone entirely suitable! I'd like to see that...to be happy instead of chastened and...begging for forgiveness. How furious she'd be." -Irma Leopold




In some ways there is also a Lord of the Flies element through a battles of wills, as characters reveal themselves through intimate actions, such as Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving) attempting to kiss Miranda in a flashback scene, that results in an rejection that may be reflected in the idea that she is the only one to be found alive and saved by two younger men. One of which she later decides that she will marry, Michael Fitzherbert (Harrison Gilbertson), despite that his affections are torn between his new friend belonging to a lower class, Albert Crundall (James Hoare) and some captivation of miss Miranda Reid, as he decides to follow the girls on their climb. Ultimately, Irma does not marry Michael, as he decides on whim that he wants to escape by traveling and hopes that his new friend Albert will join him. In that he becomes a ghost of Miranda by haunting Irma with a similar flighty and elusive disposition and in which in turn, if Irma knew what happened to Miranda or Marion, she never chose to disclose it.

"Back to your room, before someone sees you." -Greta McCraw


Other instances include the dark skinned Marion Quade (Madeleine Madden) whom often seems to act as Miranda's passive number two, but ultimately had deeper feelings for one of the teachers, Miss Greta McCraw (Anna McGahan). The two are seen briefly bonding over Marion reading The turn of the Screw (a rather apt parable) to her. But then after getting a proposal from Mrs. Appleyard to stay on as a history teacher, given her difference in appearance would not produce the same kinds of opportunities to marry well as the other girls, has her feelings crushed on the morning of the picnic when Greta advises her to act with caution, causing Marion to overreact taking it as a flat out rejection and giving her more reason to blindlessly continue to follow Miranda. In turn Greta tries to follow the girls when they begin to climb the Hanging Rock. It's a bit curious to think about this scenario too, when one might be able to see a tamed older lonely Miranda, mirrored in Miss McCraw...

The dynamics between many of the characters are both tempestuous and serene, as characters like Mrs. Appleyard are trying to hide secrets that would threaten their quality of life. Flashbacks reveal where Appleyard derives, as it was presumed early on in the story that she is not what she seems when Miranda hands over a soap container to Appleyard, threatening to ruin her, if she doesn't stop taking things out on young previously orphaned Sara (Inez Curro), whom Miranda has harbored some greater affection for, though she tries downplay it when with the older girls. Appleyard still punishes Sara by not letting her go with Miranda on the picnic, while the three of them: Irma, Miranda, and Marion make a vow that also then further excludes Sara. These actions due to both the foolishness of Miranda thinking she can underestimate Appleyard, and because Sara feels the weight of Miranda's exclusion and potential abandonment,which leads Sara to steal Hester's gun, and yes, it's trigger gets pulled, puts Sara's life in grave danger! Granted it was Sara whom also stole the soap container from Mrs. Appleyard's room and gave it to Miranda to use in the first place, that so begins to unhinged Mrs. Appleyard, whose equally foolish to hold onto such a memento.

"Poor Stray Puss." -Miranda

Hester Appleyard is then revealed to come from similar circumstances as Sara, except that her guardians are not so generous or charitable when two male con artists take young Hester (Charlotte Steenbergen) from an orphanage to be used in their schemes, and for which after years of abuse and learning all the best tricks, Hester makes a run for it when a con goes wrong, leaving one of her unsavory guardians wounded. At a train station she finds a soap counter and takes the soap brand's name for her own and begins to cultivate a story of a widow...


"You're right, Mr. Whitehead. It was an accident. I told the wrong lie." -Mrs Appleyard


But the potential murder of Sara by Mrs. Appleyard, hinted at, but never actually shown through a series of flashbacks, also calls attention to other relationship dynamics, such as siblings. Sara's tragic story is pushed even further than that of Miranda's abandonment or the general cruelty that Sara experiences through Appleyard or the Religiously fearful and altogether dowdy Dora Lumley (Yael Stone), but even more painfully so through the reveal that Albert Crundall was Sara's brother. She sees him leave after giving a letter for Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers (Lola Bessis) to post on his behalf and decides to runaway to be with him, but her plans are thwarted when she is caught by surprise in the yard. Albert then leaves never knowing the cruelty bestowed onto Sara.

"Sometimes I do not know what is happening anymore!" - Mademoiselle de Poitiers


To some Picnic at Hanging Rock may be a tedious hazy misadventure, especially because there really are no protagonists to root for. Even the French governess, Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, whose interpersonal window is introduced late in the story, aspires to be genuine in her concerns for Sara and the overall management of the school.  But despite her soft sensual likability and empathy towards others, --and although in truth it was probably already too late for Sara, viewers may notice her concerns quickly vanish, when she finds herself seduced by her love interest, the clockmaker. In that moment, she nearly betrays herself, but more so, Sara.

It's with this kind of pull and tug within circularly haunting ghost stories that presumably, like it's source material, the series fixates mostly on the notion that ignorance is bliss, but bliss is detached and blind and all characters are ignorant of something, whether it be of themselves or the intentions of others and/or the ignorance of their own fears leading them passionately to false conclusions.

"The past might be written in stone, but we are not." - Michael Fitzherbert

But if that wasn't enough, the series also muddies the pond through Biblical & Greek allegory and magical realism. Miranda, Marion, and Irma are often depicted hanging off each other, as though they are The Three Graces. In another instance, Miranda is punished with cuts in her hands by Mrs Lumley, whose almost always demoralizing the girls through her beliefs in Jesus, but the aftermath depicts Miranda as though she has transformed into Jesus herself, as her two companions undress her, tend to her wounded hands, and wash her in a spiritual manner.  Hanging Rock too is teased through droning and buzzing noises, and whispering along with conversations of electromagnetic anomalies to be a radioactive-supernatural space, as every one's clock stops ticking.  It's beautiful then the way the series is executed by going back and forth in time and how the flashing between times motifs the girls climbing the rocks by maundering through their lives revealing little secrets about them as they go around each bend, while reconfirming a story that contracts and expands on notions of singularity.

"Bad timing will define your life". - Mrs. Appleyard

Perhaps none so beautiful as the final sequence that juxtaposes two points in time, as Appleyard's reputation is all but almost destroyed, when everything falls apart after Sara's death, learning she was very wrong about what happened to girls, previously believing it to be the work of her past misguided cohorts. Mrs Appleyard becomes madder and madder, as she too finds herself at Hanging Rock and begins the journey to climb and climb. But more curious is the way the scenes are shot with Marion believing that someone is following them and for viewers to pause and wonder, if it was in fact the future Hester? The audience then also sees the three girls, Miranda, Marion, and Irma together presumably for the last time, as they abandon their corsets, but reveals that Michael had followed them much further in their journey than he ever let on.


Viewers watch him slowly dance around them when they take a brief nap, while in the present time Appleyard nearly copying his and girls steps moves towards the same spaces. There was also a story Miranda once told Sara about a horse that became free, in which freedom was being able to go over a steep edge! Viewers never learn what happened to Miranda or Marion, but we do see Miranda teetering very close to the edge as if she was going to jump, but the scene is cut to juxtapose Appleyard taking the plunge instead! The camera shows the rocks below. No bodies can be seen, but it is stated that the headmistresses body was found! Did Miranda & Marion slip through space-time or are one of the many laid out male suspects still responsible for some of the disappearances or did Miranda & Marion simply run away?

The visuals and casting for 'Hanging Rock' are exquisite! I have regrettably never read the novel or seen the 1975 film adaptation, but I suspect given this lengthier and more nuanced approach and decision in it's well-chosen ensemble cast, particularly with the shrewd coolness of Natalie Dormer in the lead and perhaps with Harrison Gilbertson reminiscent of a young spaced-out David Bowie, this version is an expansion on the original source material that then allows it to more easily transcend space-time with it's turn of the 20th century issues, onto our own contemporary concerns. Even it's electric hot pink on black title cards, which are also used to pinpoint time, are modernly evocative of lettering like that used on Vogue Magazine or pop & punk album covers like Madonna, The Sex Pistols, or Lady Gaga, all invoking a dangerously provocative glam lifestyles of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll; contemporary versions of escapism!


"You must learn to love more than me." - Miranda


The bottom line is Picnic at Hanging Rock is wonderfully done eerie and otherworldly bittersweet tragedy and enchanting psychological thriller, hinging on fears about the all the rebelling shapes women can take and asks not only if identity is fluid, but where is the line between managing one's own identity and being left alone to the great devices beyond ourselves, whether it be the supernatural or the consequences of each others' actions, but more so, should we fear what we can't control and what we do not know? If you can live with the unknown and like works such as Rebecca, The Beguiled, or Wuthering Heights this mini-series may be just be the right thing for you, but if you are looking for a idyllic straight forward mystery period piece, you may find this picnic will only leave you hanging.



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