It is very difficult to accurately depict the intimacy of close female relationships. No matter the setting – all girls boarding school, home with six sisters, post-apocalyptic gang of teenage rebels – the dynamic is so specific that it is almost impossible to capture. I know I have had, and currently do have, friendships with other girls so close that it would be easy to mistake them for something more, and media that captures such a bond is a rare and beautiful thing. Amazon Prime’s 2018 adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is an example of such a piece of media.
The show is not exactly true to the original text, nor does it mirror Peter Weir’s fever dream of a movie, which was made in 1975. Rather, the new adaptation looks more like a Lana Del Rey video, replete with beautiful girls dressed like butterflies in bright colours, blurry visuals and echoing audios, and an underlying sense of both aggression and homoeroticism that are not quite so present in the book. ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ falls, to my mind, into a category of stories which seem to exist in their own separate universe, books like Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’, books where location almost seems to take precedence over narrative. The new series captures that sense of place with pinpoint accuracy, but more than that, it captures the nuanced and occasionally destructive dynamic of female relationships.
The main girls sprawl over one another at every possible opportunity, practice kissing, fight and bicker, claim to ‘hate’ one another, obsess over their looks, climb mountains and complain, make vows involving blood and rose petals, giggle and laugh and gossip. The show’s portrayal of the way young women interact is fascinating and intimate, leaving the viewer feeling almost voyeuristic for bearing witness to something so seemingly private. And for once, the male gaze renders the show’s few men as outsiders, unable to do anything but observe the intricate secrets of the girls’ world. The show’s Michael Fitzhubert obsesses over the girls in a fashion similar to the obsession displayed by the narrators of ‘The Virgin Suicides’ towards the Lisbon sisters, but he can never reach or understand them. The burgeoning sexuality of the girls, their desire to be free, and their eventual inexplicable disappearance is as much a feminist commentary on the social repression of women, both in 1900 and in 2018, as it is the plot of a mystery novel.
The three main schoolgirls – Marion, Miranda and Irma – are cast as somewhat two-dimensional caricatures – academic, wild child, snob, respectively – but this is no more a flaw of the adaptation than of the original book, and backstory is inserted at every possible opportunity. Mrs Appleyard, expertly portrayed by Natalie Dormer, becomes an antihero with a convoluted background, including secrets that are somehow blackmail-worthy. Marion is played by an Indigenous Australian actress, adding a layer of racial tension to a book which was very explicitly centred around colonial Australia. Sara Waybourne, the college’s youngest student, becomes almost feral in her rebellious nature. Even the insufferable Edith becomes somewhat sympathetic, transformed into a needy child desperate for her mother’s affection. Meanwhile queer subtext runs rampant – between Sara and Miranda, Miranda and Irma and Marion, Marion and maths professor Greta McCraw, and even between rich Cambridge boy Mike and his stable hand, Albert. The show has been rightfully hailed for its cast of unique and interesting female characters, and that is one of the things that renders it so appealing.
Beyond the plot and dramatis personae, the show is beautifully directed and filmed, with a perfect soundtrack and glorious costumes. In some scenes, the young ladies at the boarding school move with almost comic, Wes-Anderson-style synchrony, like eerie puppets, and in others they flit around, dressed all in white lace, like ethereal beings. The camera angles rotate and pan in and out, and the scenes often seem to move in slow-motion, with characters leaving shadows of their former movements behind them. The otherworldly quality, captured so precisely both in the original text and in Weir’s movie, is once again conveyed, with time as a recurring motif, and echoing shrieks and bird calls as a constant backdrop. Even if you aren’t pleased with the liberties the show takes with the original storyline, there is no denying that it is lovely to look at.
The adaptation does, of course, have its flaws. It struggles to tie up some of its loose ends, and six episodes is really not enough to fully develop the backstories of all the characters. The symbolism is occasionally a little heavy-handed, with perhaps almost too much of a focus on capturing aesthetics, and some of the questions it introduces are left unanswered. But what it does, it does well. As the show’s Reginald Lumley puts it, “When there’s girls together, there is trouble”, and the show captures every layer of that trouble, even if it sacrifices some of the story in the telling.