There are few things more likely to run a chill up the spine in TV world than young girls in white gowns chattering in the distance in hazy sunshine, and director/producer Larysa Kondracki knows it. The aesthetic is at the heart of what makes Picnic At Hanging Rock a stylishly haunting series, teased out from the original, open-ended book from Australian writer Joan Lindsay, and also Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation.
The six-parter – airing on the BBC tonight after stints on Showcase in Australia and Amazon Prime in the US – begins by reminding us about the universality of being a teenage girl. The setting is Appleyard College for Young Ladies in rural Victorian-era Australia, but stick us in any time, any continent, any social class, any otherworldly situation, and we’ll still be doing teenage things like showing a little more flesh than we should and freaking out over our "monthly blood".
But on Valentine’s Day 1900, at Hanging Rock, a geological site sacred to Aborigines, the unthinkable happens. Three high-heritage girls – Miranda (Lily Sullivan), Irma (Samara Weaving), Marion (Madeleine Madden) – and their teacher Miss McGraw (Anna McGahan) go missing as they veer off-path during a school outing. To be fair, strange things happen before then: they pass shadowy horsemen and the group of picnickers suddenly fall asleep as if under a trance. Even at this early stage, the theme of time is apparent; watches go haywire as if beholden to other forces, and scenes subtly speed up and slow down, providing a visual cue that nothing is quite what it seems.
It’s reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, whose left-field palette defines its feel, or even the play Woman in Black, with its shorthand aesthetics and emphasised theatrics. But while both of these felt focused enough to deliver with flair, Picnic At Hanging Rock’s delivery jumbles the clarity that’s needed to convey its many weighty themes – female empowerment, race, class, friendship – especially as the series is crammed with exploration of the main characters beyond what’s revealed in the book.
Indeed, the mystery surrounding the vanished children (so on-TV trend these days – see also The Missing, Kiri, Safe) allows us to spend the next episodes uncovering what lies beneath the surface at Appleyard College. We know from the get-go that Hester Appleyard, played ruthlessly by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, is feigning the role of a grieving widow from Kensington ("People always believe their own eyes. Dress like a tart, you’re a tart. Dress like a widow…") and it’s a treat to see her keep up the ruse within polite society, although the intense Sara (Inez Currõ), an orphan girl raised at the finishing school, has her sussed.
All the while, the sexual tension in the air – between the teens, their teachers, their suitors – adds to the cloying atmosphere.
Clearly, this is much, much more than a fanciful period drama. Its stylistic surrealism picks up right where Get Out left off, and there's a silver-screen approach to its pace, which allows eeriness to creep into the silences. It’s a real shame it comes at the expense of a well-told story, but the drama is palatable, the acting superb, and the girls in white? They’ll be in my nightmares for a while.
Picnic At Hanging Rock airs on BBC Two tonight at 9.05pm.