Joan Lindsay’s notorious novel (1967) birthed a stage play and a classic of Aussie cinema (1975), a movie that manages to bridge Merchant Ivory and The Twilight Zone. The memorable picnic could make an intriguing mini-series (2018). It’s not clear, however, from the first episode, if that’s what we’re going to see.

Title: “Episode 1”

Directed by Larysa Kondracki
Written by Beatrix Christian
Adapted from the novel by Joan Lindsay

Cast

Natalie Dormer as Mrs. Appleyard
Lily Sullivan as Miranda Reid
Samara Weaving as Irma Leopold
Madeleine Madden as Marion Quade
Lola Bessis as Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers
Anna McGahan as Miss Greta McCraw
Ruby Rees as Edith
Harrison Gilbertson as Michael Fitzhubert
Inez Currõ as Sara Waybourne
Yael Stone as Dora Lumley
Philip Quast as Arthur
Marcus Graham as Tomasetti
James Hoare as Albert Crundall
Mark Coles Smith as Tom
Don Hany as Dr. Mackenzie
Emily Gruhl as Minnie
Nicholas Hope as Colonel Fitzhubert
Bethany Whitmore as Blanche Gifford
Mayah Fredes as Rosamund Swift
Alyssa Tuddenham as Lily Kenton
Kate Bradford as Rose Kenton
Markella Kavenagh as Myrtle

Premise

Past-haunted Mrs. Appleyard opens a school for girls in Australia. On Valentine’s Day, 1900, some of her students and staff head out for a picnic at a storied Australian monument.

They won’t all be returning.

High Point

Certain moments work very well. The picnic itself looks like an impressionistic painting. We also get a shocking moment when a lecherous man receives a rather pointed reminder that no, in fact, means no.

Low Point

I recognize that this series wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, try to replicate the film. It’s a new adaptation of the source material. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to remove the Peter Weir movie entirely from my head when the first episode gives us an adaptation so entirely antithetical to the source material. The hyperbolic, borderline campy approach simply does not suit this story, which relies heavily on subtlety and suggestion. Natalie Dormer, best-remembered for her key roles in The Tudors and Game of Thrones acts and dresses like the Madame of a brothel in Alice’s Wonderland, rather than the more conventionally cruel headmistress of the novel.

The Scores

Originality: 2/6 The series appears set to develop the central characters’ backstories in new ways, but it remains an adaptation of a novel that others have already revisited.

Effects: 4/6 The film features some strong visual scenes, and doubtless employed some general effects.

Story: 5/6 It’s the first episode of something bigger, so the story remains uncertain. They’re setting up plot and characters.

Acting: 5/6 The actors are very strong. It’s just not clear if their characters quite make sense. The script at time recalls American Horror Story, with its emphasis on excess.

Emotional Response: 4/6 I had great difficulty engaging this version of the Picnic. Those who find Weir’s film a little too mysterious and distant may like the more blatant approach of the mini-series.

Production: 6/6

Overall: 4/6

In total, receives 30/42

Note

The novel, as written, explained its mystery with a decidedly SF twist. Publishers urged Lindsay to remove that chapter, and leave the explanation up to the reader’s imagination. The missing chapter has since been released as “The Secret of Hanging Rock,” but adaptations to date have only hinted at solutions.

Lindsay, who was alive in 1900, always suggested her novel had its roots in real events. While this appears to be a promotional pose, the air of real mystery has always served this story.