Picnic At Hanging Rock episode 2 review

Picnic At Hanging Rock sets up its characters’ backstories in episode 2. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

By the end of episode two, the girls and Miss McGraw have been missing for over a week. They’ve been “ate and shat out by now”, is the unpretty verdict of one tracker. After the official search is called off, there’s only the mania of Mike Fitzherbert—needing to clear his name of any rumoured involvement—to thank for the discovery of a body. Whose body? Alive or dead? Just what happened to it? All questions for next week.

It’s not only out in the bush where the eyes play tricks on you—they did so throughout this episode. Director Larysa Kondracki has invited nightmares, hallucinations, imaginings and memories in to this story, letting them bleed through its walls to keep viewers disoriented and alert.

(It’s isn’t just the eyes that play tricks, either. Episode two was as much about sound as vision. The tracking whoops of the men in the search party overlapped with birdcall, screeches and screams. You’re never quite sure what, or when, you’re hearing.)

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No actual walls bled in Picnic At Hanging Rock episode two, but they wouldn’t have been out of place if they had. Appleyard Academy is part Amityville Horror, part Overlook Hotel. Like Mount Diogenes, the school is dominated by atmosphere, not reality. 

The heightened mood of Edith’s monologue to her fellow pupils, for instance, turns it into a stage show, complete with dramatic lighting and a Greek chorus to echo her words. Irma and Marion flit like moths when comforting Miranda after she was caned, time blurring as it’s sped up and slowed down. Mrs Appleyard attending Edith’s bedside is styled like a floating spectre, more vampire than headmistress. The flash of an eye shows us corpses strung up from the school washing lines, an unwelcome image intruding on Hester as she attempts to maintain her fast grip on the world. 

That grip is slackening with every day the girls remain gone. The life Hester was running away from—summed up neatly in a flashback to her irritably rolling away the naked corpse of a man Arthur had shot so she could reach the cash they were stealing—is back to claim her. Try as she might to keep the story quiet, rumour spreads like wildfire. Scandal, notoriety, death… Appleyard Academy was designed to tamp all that mucky stuff down, but it’s rising up. 

The honourable Michael Fitzherbert too, is finding that no matter how far away you go, you can’t escape yourself. Mike’s on the other side of the world from his English scandal—he’s gay, which simply isn’t permitted—but his trauma revisits him in the form of a nightmare. As he sleeps on the rock, giant shadows loom over him as young topless men in top hats jeer at and beat him. Dehydrated and feverish, he’s dreaming them as part of an initiation ceremony like the ones Albert told him the rock was used for. “Boys to men, that sort of thing”. 

As a location, Hanging Rock is—to use a technical term—a doohickey for weirdness. With a reputation for being haunted, it’s the sort of all-bets-are-off location that you could spend paragraphs describing using the kind of words that properly belong nowhere outside a Wiccan goddess retreat weekend brochure, but all that really needs saying is: the rock incubates a kind of madness. If these characters have inner demons, it will hatch them.

They all have demons, thanks to Beatrix Christian’s adaptation.

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Oddball Miss Lumley, for one, certainly requires an explanation. After delivering an impassioned sermon on the crucifixion, which was echoed in the flashback of Miranda in cruciform pose on the bed, her caned hands outstretched and bandaged like Christ as the other girls nestled at her sides, Lumley rummages through the missing girls’ possessions. In Miss McGraw’s room, she discovers a rustic dildo along with a family letter condemning her lesbianism. Was McGraw romantically involved with one of the girls? Another question for next week.

Sexuality is so far this drama’s major preoccupation, and it’s making fruitful use of the opportunity to go back into Joan Lindsay’s 1960s-written, 1900-set novel to fill in a few blanks on the subject. The drama’s fluidity between what’s real and what’s imagined fits in a time where social possibilities were beginning to shift. The Fitzhubert cronies may still toast Queen Victoria, but the new century would see gay men, lesbians, indigenous Australians and women all fighting for changes to the way Picnic At Hanging Rock shows them being treated. It’s offering the sort of history lesson we can’t be reminded about too often.