Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid | Picnic at Hanging Rock 1975 vs 2018

I approached Showcase’s series Picnic at Hanging Rock with some trepidation. As a major fan of both Joan Lindsay’s original 1967 novel and Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation, all of the same name, would it be possible to approach it without plenty of preconceived notions?

The answer: no, I couldn’t really. However, more general reactions to the six-part series have only reinforced my own less-than-favourable response. Despite the promising set-up and some good performances, Picnic at Hanging Rock spends too much time trying to explain away the ambiguity of the source material with little left to say for itself.

Picnic follows Hester Appleyard (Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer), headmistress of Appleyard College, a private school for girls in rural Australia. Much of the series’ focus is on Valentine’s Day 1900, in which the school’s typical strict routine is put aside for an excursion to a local geological formation, known as Hanging Rock. After lunch, the whole party mysteriously falls asleep, allowing several members of the group, including the school’s three most popular girls, Miranda (Lily Sullivan), Irma (Samara Weaving) and Marion (Madeleine Madden), wander off to climb the rock. When all but one of the girls fails to return by nightfall, word goes back to the town and a search party is set up to locate the missing girls and their maths teacher. During the prolonged search Hester struggles under the scrutiny of the local police, fearing that her school might fail and her less-than-reputable past discovered.

While the series broadly follows the plot of the original, its attempt to explain away much of the novel’s ambiguity highlights a dearth of imagination. Each of the main characters is given a lot more story and motive but most of this only serves to make them harder to like. While the show’s narrative presents a broadly feminist reading – in a Victorian patriarchal society, it’s those with the least power that will suffer – this was simply one of the multiple interpretations that could be gleaned from either Lindsay’s novel or Weir’s film. This feminist gloss, moreover, starts to crumble when the aesthetics are considered. For example, there are a number of extended sapphic scenes in which the trio undress each other. This may have been intended to expand upon the lesbian subtext of the previous versions, but ends up feeling uncomfortably as though it’s there to entertain a male viewership. The series can’t seem to operate without reducing its characters into Mean Girls-esque scenarios. It’s hard to find much solidarity between any of the girls. Indeed, that film’s refrain “It’s not my fault you’re like, in love with me, or something!” has perhaps more relevance here than it should.


While Dormer does a good job as a woman struggling to keep hold in an increasingly desperate situation, Hester’s story is strangely detached – both thematically and chronologically – from the rest of the narrative. At times it feels as though the series is simply trying to tell two unrelated narratives, and indeed, the fact that Hester is the character who is most drastically changed in adaptation – in the novel she is middle-aged and isn’t given a potentially murderous backstory – suggests this is indeed what is happening. Not all of the changes are for the worse: Marion, the most intelligent of the film’s power trio, is here played by Madeleine Madden, an aboriginal actress, and the inclusion of a mixed-race character in a white boarding school brings added nuance to her story.

Perhaps the biggest let down, however, is that of the pièce de résistance: the events at the hanging rock. Although the series claims only to be based on Lindsay’s work, it contains clear visual nods to Weir’s film, particularly in the white pinafores worn by the students. It’s surprising, in that case, that the series comes nowhere near the visual splendour of Weir’s picnic. Whereas the film’s pallet is saturated with a blinding Australian sun, the 2018 version has little to differentiate it from an elaborate perfume ad. Everything feels a little too pristine and poised to be convincing, down to the careful close-ups that highlight the wind whipping the girls’ hair.

The series just doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of the film, in which the deadly beauty of the Australian outback and the mirth of a rare day of leisure mix with a desire for freedom that can never be spoken aloud. What we get instead is an early modern police procedural which provides very little payoff.

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