Joan Lindsay’s 1967 mystery novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, adapted for film by Peter Weir in 1975, is now a mini-series playing on Amazon Video in the US and BBC Two in Britain. The creators of the new series no doubt knew that they could not outdo Weir’s sensuous, evocative film. But it is easy to see why they were drawn to the tale. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a singularly persuasive expression of the now widespread idea that civilisation is an oppressive thing from which we all must be freed.
The story opens on St Valentine’s Day, 1900. A group of teenage girls at an Australian finishing school called Appleyard College exchange Valentines under the serene gaze of Victoria Regina, whose portrait hangs on the walls. Soon they will go on a picnic at a strange natural formation called Hanging Rock, during which three of them – angelic Miranda Reid, cerebral Marion Quade, and wealthy Irma Leopold – will disappear, along with the mathematics instructor. No trace is left of the women, who seem to have vanished into the air after climbing the rock.
Both the 1975 film and the new mini-series reflect the novel’s polemic against Victorian society. Civilisation appears a messy imposition upon the deeper, truer order of nature. Appleyard College is stocked with “hideous Victorian furnishings”. The girls are subjected to regimens that reflect “Authority’s high-handed disregard of Nature’s basic laws.”
A young man named Michael Fitzhubert defies authority and convention to retrieve the heiress Irma. Though he has no knowledge of the bush, and the locale has already been combed by detectives and bloodhounds, Michael resolves to search. When his friend discourages him, Michael furiously replies: “All my life I’ve been doing things because other people said they were the right things to do. This time I’m going to do something because I say so – even if you and everyone else thinks I’m mad!”
Irma, once found, has no memory of what has happened since her disappearance several days earlier. Among the scant clues is the fact that her corset is missing. When the girls went out to the picnic, they were “insulated from natural contacts with earth, air, and sunlight by corsets pressing on the solar plexus”. Somehow, by scaling the rockface, Irma and the others ascended to a realm of natural freedom and entered a world without stays.
In the late 1960s, when Joan Lindsay published her novel, the idea that freedom is attained by throwing off constraint still seemed fresh. Both the novel and film seem confident that the Victorian world they depict is powerless and vanquished, an Atlantis forever submerged. The mini-series is less sure. At times it becomes dire and frenzied in its depictions of the cruelties of the past, as if it did not quite trust the viewer to prefer the present. It depicts religion as a powerful and sinister force to be confronted and overcome. One teacher, presented as a religious fanatic, is contrasted with the lovely, open-minded young girls – who, in the mini-series, become witches of a sort, taking a Druidical vow. Even if one shares Lindsay’s distaste for corsetry and Victorian furnishings, it is doubtful that casting them off also requires discarding all authority, or exchanging Christianity for witchcraft.
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