Picnic At Hanging Rock episode 1 review: heaven, hell and the Australian weird

Natalie Dormer stars in eerie new Australian drama Picnic At Hanging Rock. Spoilers ahead in our review...

This review contains spoilers.

Like a teenager’s bedroom plastered in pages torn from magazines, Picnic At Hanging Rock is a gutsy and invigorating collision of influences. From haute-couture fashion spread to surreal nightmare by way of a 90s high school flick, episode one has no shortage of big visual ideas.

Its first is Hester Appleyard, a cockney stray disguised as a genteel Victorian widow (in turn disguised as Lady Gaga attending the Met Ball). Played by Natalie Dormer, Appleyard is a Gothic confection of jewel-coloured silk and attitude. We meet her in her widow’s weeds, shot dead-centre from behind, and she barely leaves the centre of the frame all episode. Appleyard signifies control and restraint, is the message. Her world is symmetrical and overpowered by force of her will.

The flower child at the other end of the spectrum is Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan), one of Appleyard’s pupils. A nature lover we meet first upside down, then running barefoot through the woods in a white nightgown, Miranda is a symbol of freedom and “the true wild”. She rejects elegance and the ambient sexism of her time, describing her heiress pal Irma (Samara Weaving – incidentally, niece to Hugo) as a horse being groomed for auction.

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Miranda dreams of escape, and in some form or another, that’s what she gets. By the end of episode one, the Appleyard Academy school party has returned from the show’s titular picnic minus three pupils and a teacher. Miranda is among the missing girls. What happened to her, Irma, Marion and Miss McGraw on the slopes of Mount Diogenes? Were they victims of a mortal threat, or of something otherworldly?

Mortal threat is something of which Hester Appleyard is all-too aware. Part sergeant major, she runs her boarding school like an army camp, training soldiers not for the battlefield, but for the war of being women in the world of 1900. To Hester, menace is everywhere, from men like the one who gets a pitchfork in the foot for sexually assaulting Miranda, to potential stains on one’s reputation, to—the darkest of all—threats from within. Hester’s cruel treatment of orphan Sara (Inez Currõ) in “the tower” reveals a worldview that’s all about beating down the devil inside.

Are there actual devils and demons at play in Picnic At Hanging Rock? That’s your call. Director Larysa Kondracki and writer Beatrix Christian have laid out various paths through this story and it feels as though we can take our pick. Those who favour an earthly explanation for the disappearances, for instance, may note Miranda’s attacker, growling at the passing wagon of schoolgirls as it makes its way to the rock site. They may also clock the couple of ne’er-do-well cowboys the girls cross paths with along the way. And then there’s Mike Fitzhubert, nephew to a well-to-do local colonel, and his serving man Albert. Are any of these men behind the disappearances? Or could whatever caused everybody’s watches to stop dead at midday on the rock be responsible?

The mystery’s only part of it. In its telling, there’s social satire from the hoity toity townspeople who point out Marion as “the dark one” and lament beautiful, rich Irma being “a Hebrew”. There’s also comedy from Orange Is The New Black’s Yael Stone, almost unrecognisable here with her lower lip stuffed with tissue paper to play outraged oddball Miss Lumley. There’s wit too, in the editing—the “naked tits” of two classical statues censored with signs bearing pious instructions.

Beneath piety is corruption and beneath prettiness is decay, episode one suggests. A fun, pop montage of Valentine’s cards being delivered ends decisively with a cleaver landing heavily on a hunk of gleaming flesh. The lives of young women are pretty and shimmering, until they’re not, says the episode. No matter how clipped the lawns and how pristine your symmetry, a seamy undercurrent of blood, sex and wilderness threatens to undermine it all. Nature is a menace. Mountains are virile and unseemly. Heaven and hell are both here, out in the weird Australian wild.

Picnic At Hanging Rock has a hallowed place in Australian culture, both Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel and Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation. To stand up to those predecessors requires guts, and this strange concoction of expressionism, comedy and Gothic chills looks to have no shortage of those.

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Picnic At Hanging Rock continues next Wednesday the 18th of July at 9.05pm on BBC Two.