‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ Or Mrs. Appleyard’s School for Girls Who Like Girls

Every queer girl goes through a witchy, forest nymph phase, and thanks to films like Lost & Delirious and Mädchen in Uniform, at one point or another we also have at least considered the possibility of attending an all-girls school. In Picnic At Hanging Rock, we get all of that in one miniseries, in addition to Natalie Dormer in gorgeous Victorian costumes.

In 1967, Joan Lindsay, then a 67-year-old woman, had a dream about a picnic and an all-girls’ school one night. She woke up and wrote non-stop for two weeks straight. The result of this was her novel,  Picnic At Hanging Rock, which in turn spawned a 1975 film adaptation, and now a six-part Amazon miniseries.

The premise of the new version doesn’t stray far from the 1975 classic. In fact, it adopts a similar dreamlike imagery that allows its audience very little certainty in what is actually happening, which in essence mirrors the trance-like manner in which Lindsay claims to have written the novel.

Picnic At Hanging Rock is as stunning and rich as the novel its based on. It follows the young women living at Appleyard College, a private boarding school for girls in 1900 Australia. Among its prestigious attendees, a particularly close-knit trio of friends is at the center of this multi-layered story. On Valentine’s Day, during a much-anticipated excursion, Miranda, Irma, Marion and their Geography teacher Miss Greta McCraw (played respectively by Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden, and Anna McGahan) disappear without a trace. Later, one of the girls is found unconscious, yet as she comes to, she reveals that she has no recollection of what went on during her disappearance, or any idea of where the other young women are. This sets off a chain of events that reveal the secrets hidden behind the walls of the school and bring forth unwelcome ghosts from the past.

While many of the characters read as queer at certain points, Picnic At Hanging Rock has two explicitly gay characters: Miss McCraw and Marion, who over holiday break develop a close bond that stops short of becoming more on the day of the disappearance. While Marion is more than willing to pursue something more serious, Miss McCraw is hesitant, as it is later revealed she’s been turned away by her family in hopes that the experience at the school will curb her “unnatural” tendencies.

Save for a few minor tweaks, the Amazon production remains true to the original adaptation; but it takes a few significant liberties in certain aspects, most noticeably in expanding upon the queer elements of the story, which are woven into the overall mystical atmosphere of the Hanging Rock universe.

In addition to themes of rebellion and freedom versus female oppression, both versions lean upon the supernatural aspects of the novel. Lindsay, who was known within her inner circle to possess a clairvoyant ability but was insecure about revealing this to her husband, chose to instead channel that side of herself by using elements of spirituality and the supernatural in her writing, specifically in Hanging Rock.

Picnic At Hanging Rock is a mysterious thriller of sorts, though at its core, its definition is more subjective, leaving one to wonder if it is less of a possible murder mystery, and more of an open-ended psychological thriller with as many outcomes as a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There is more to the story than just a clear-cut disappearance thanks to the subtle hints at an involvement with the occult. The plot’s complexity is what’s helped to maintain the novel’s popularity, keeping in high regard as one of the greatest Australian novels ever published.   

This is not a show for the lazy viewer. Picnic at Hanging Rock demands attention, which isn’t a difficult request to acquiesce to, as the show’s marriage of realism and surrealism makes for one aesthetically pleasing buffet. Its imagery contains all the slow motion flowing of hair and skirts of a hazy dream, as well as the secretive shared glances of a potentially well-plotted disappearing act performed by dangerous, vindictive schoolgirls, all neatly wrapped in a package of queer energy that manages to be both alluring and erotic without relying on cheap exploitation tactics.

With dialogue and cinematography that echoes that of the original adaptation, Amazon’s version isn’t a remake, but an expansion of Peter Weir’s film and a more direct take on Joan Lindsay’s vision, if Joan Lindsay was aiming for a Pride month release date.

Picnic At Hanging Rock is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Images via Amazon

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