Few Australian films have cast a haunting and influential spell over cinema like 1975’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the mystery about several students from a posh finishing school who vanished during a Valentine’s Day outing to the rugged forest landmark in 1900.
In addition to an eerie tone that captivated audiences, the film jump-started the career of acclaimed filmmaker Peter Weir (“Witness,” “The Truman Show”), who is credited with propelling the Australian New Wave cinema movement.
Streaming service Amazon revisits the moody story, based on a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, in a six-part miniseries launching May 25. Larysa Kondracki, the project’s showrunner and principal director, says it’s hard to fit the reimagined “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” starring Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones” and “The Tudors,” into a specific genre.
“It’s an enchanted chiller with fantastical elements,” said Kondracki, (“The Americans,” “Better Call Saul”) who directed half the episodes.“It’s a gothic ghost story with a punky confidence.”
The lush and atmospheric series could also qualify as “emotional science fiction,” she said, or a “choose your own adventure,” an allusion to all the Easter eggs in the episodes. For those not afraid of the dark, it’s “a simmering nightmare,” with a wink to “Heathers,” a splash of magical realism and a heartbreaking slice of “Oliver Twist.”
Dormer, who plays icy headmistress Hester Appleyard, provided her own perspective as she joined Kondracki for a press junket at the historic Greystone Manor in Beverly Hills, which had been set-dressed to mimic an old-fashioned picnic.
“It would be a disservice to refer to it as a costume drama,” Dormer said. “There’s black humor, coming of age, love stories. Funky is a good word.”
The new “Picnic” shot entirely on locations at the park and its nearby Victorian mansions, pays homage to the movie but draws the lion’s share of its inspiration from Lindsay’s novel.
The book is “chameleonic,” Kondracki said, with plenty of room for interpretation and a final chapter that wasn’t published until the ‘80s. She’s also referred to it as a mashup of “the Bible, Shakespeare and The Great Gatsby” to its loyalists, ensuring that she would be faithful to the spirit of Lindsay’s work.
Script producer-writer Beatrix Christian took the source material and fleshed out characters who are relatively one-note in the film and gave the situations richer detail, more intrigue and quicker pacing. (There’s absolutely no pan flute music.) Viewers learn the backstories of the lead characters and peek into the shady past of the tyrannical Appleyard.
The bulk of the story revolves around the aftermath of the disappearances, with the attendees at Appleyard College suffering from various degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s remorse. Meanwhile, Appleyard struggles to contain the incident and the hit to her bottom line as worried parents start withdrawing their daughters.
When one of the missing girls is found on the rock, more questions arise than are answered about the day of the fateful picnic: Were the young women kidnapped, molested or killed? Or did they escape? (No spoilers here, but Kondracki promises “an emotional conclusion” that will still leave audiences guessing.)
“Picnic” deals with nearly every kind of repression imaginable, certainly sexual, and does not tread lightly on matters of class and race. Its female characters at the remote college are “groomed like horses for auction,” says one of the girls, while freedom in thought or action seems like an impossibility in their lives.
Beatings for misbehavior are common, gloves and hats are mandatory. But the students buck the system in their own ways.
Though the series, which was three years in the making, can be pegged as a period piece, “it’s not about any time in specific,” Kondracki said. “It’s about people finding the strength to listen to themselves, and that’s as hard as it ever was.”
What may be instantly recognizable to modern audiences is the depiction of the burden that falls on a woman in charge, whose success is suspect and whose actions are constantly critiqued.
In one scene, residents of the town confront Appleyard with a “missing and presumed dead” flyer of the girls, implying none so subtly that she’s to blame.
Dormer, a veteran stage actor in the U.K., may be best known for her six seasons as the social-climbing, would-be queen Margaery Tyrell on HBO’s epic drama “Game of Thrones.” The character used her ability to manipulate men, in particular the Lannister heirs, to finally land a crown on her head, but her reign was short-lived. She died in a fiery explosion as part of the ongoing brutal power grab in Westeros.
Before that, Dormer, who’s also had roles in CBS’ “Elementary” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” starred as Anne Boleyn on Showtime’s “The Tudors,” where she also plotted and schemed her way to the throne but was met with a violent end.
She said it was “far too soon to get back into a corset” but took the “Hanging Rock” lead role because she gravitated to the “unique, distinctive voice” of the scripts. And she found Hester Appleyard to be a challenge because she’s the “least self-aware character I’ve ever played and the one most in need of therapy.”
The character “left a residue” with Dormer because she’s a woman so damaged that she repeatedly mistreats an orphan in her care. She’s capable of extreme cattiness and psychological abuse and, on another level entirely, murder and its subsequent cover-up.
And even on a good day, her idea of levity for the traumatized students is “fresh air and organ music.” In other words, a visit to church.
Although the co-production between Freemantle Australia and Amazon may be set in the past century, it has a distinct connection to the #MeToo era, with its majority female cast and creative team and its universal subject matter.
“It’s the female gaze, by osmosis and not by manifesto,” Dormer said, proving that women’s struggles may morph over time but ultimately showing from then to now, “how the fight differs and how the fight is exactly the same.”
‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)