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On Valentine’s Day 1900, four young women vanished from a picnic at Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia. That much I remember, from Peter Weir’s 1975 film. They didn’t really disappear, but it is framed as a true story – in Joan Lindsay’s novel, in the film and in this new TV adaption (BBC Two).
This one goes back to some time before the incident, to Mrs Appleyard purchasing the grand house in the Australian bush that she will run as a girl’s finishing school. Played by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, she is much younger than Mrs Appleyard of the movie – and considerably more badass. Outwardly a refined English widow, in her narration she is common as muck, sounding like she has been deported from somewhere not far from Albert Square. Later, she will sport a pair of Ozzy Osbourne round shades. “You’ll never find us out here, arse end of the world,” she says, to herself and who knows who else. Intriguing …
OK, before going any further, I think I need to see the film again. I must have been a teenager last time. I remember it being mysterious, dreamy, eerie, surreal and that it made me think longingly about posh girls in white dresses. It turns out I remembered well: it is mysterious, dreemy, eerie and surreal. Beautiful, too, but God it seems slow now – and thin, all about the creation of an atmosphere and not a lot else. A large part of it is taken up with the girls ascending the rock, backlit against the sun. The whole thing is made more excruciating by Gheorghe Zamfir’s panpipe soundtrack, which may have been acceptable in the 70s, but now is insufferable. If you have fond memories of the film, my advice is to keep them as that: memories. Don’t revisit it.
How they hell are they going to stretch out that story to six episodes? By filling it out, making it bigger in every way. There are mysterious backstories to dig out, starting with Mrs Appleyard’s. Switching between steely, cruel and compassionate, she is obviously damaged, living a lie, running from something, not least her own inadequacies. Is she even a widow? She talks about Arthur in the present tense, after all.
Anyway, we jump forward in time and the school is up and running. It is sadism and torture – a contraption for would-be ladies called a “posture board” survives – mixed strangely with companionship and love. Here is Miranda (Lily Sullivan) – later one of the missing – sneaking back into the dormitory in the morning, nearly caught, but saved by quick thinking and a chamber pot. Where was she? Meeting someone? Better than that: convening with nature. Nature is important here.
Miranda has a close relationship with a younger girl, Sara – a poetic crush, or maybe something more. A less ambiguous relationship between another girl, Marion, and Mrs McCraw, the maths teacher, will emerge. Female intimacy was certainly there in the film, but more hinted at than explored, as it is here. The characters, too, are explored and developed in ways they were not in the film.
Swotty Marion (Madeleine Madden) is indigenous. Another girl, blond-haired Irma, is a Rothschild heir. “Pity she’s a Hebrew; who are your people?” a ghastly lady asks Mrs Appleyard at a local fete. Yes, it is not just Miranda who ventures outside the school gates. The adaptation does, too, to take in all the horrors of turn-of-the-century colonialism. Racism, snobbishness, rough men and their animal urges – although one stable boy had not bargained for Miranda or Mrs Appleyard. Forked, he is, through the foot.
They also go outside, heavily chaperoned, for their picnic at Mount Diogenes, AKA Hanging Rock. By the end of the first episode, Miranda, Marion, Irma and another girl, Edith, have ascended through the tangled woods, posh girls in white dresses drawn mysteriously upwards by whatever it is. That remains, plus the stopping watches (is it a time warp?) and the lovely nature. It is mysterious, dreamy, eerie and surreal.
But it is more than this. The “small-screen” version is bigger in its outlook than its big-screen predecessor. It has taken a step back to take in more – more time, more of the world. And there are no bloody panpipes.
Source: The Guardian
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