When news arrived that a Picnic at Hanging Rock TV series was in the works, many of us reacted with cynicism. Why go there? What kind of folly was this? Although technically an adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, the show invariably lives in the shadow of Peter Weir’s 1975 masterpiece – one of the great works of the Australian New Wave. The very definition of a tough act to follow.
Currently being broadcast on Foxtel, and available on its Foxtel Now streaming service, a couple of things are now clear about the new Hanging Rock: 1) it’s not in the same league as Weir’s film, which is hardly surprising, and 2) it is nevertheless a fine adaptation, fashioned in an unquestionably bold visual style. With three directors (Larysa Kondracki, Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie) the auteur of the series is, in a way, the cinematographer Garry Phillips, whose images are frequently striking: bright, bold, intensely moody and a times experimentally framed.
Editors Anne Carter and Geoff Hitchins whip these images together in an often fast-paced and frenetic style. I decided to slow down the tempo, literally pausing the series to examine six great shots – one from each episode (click on each image to enlarge). As you will see, each of these images appealed to me for different reasons, many evoking memories of other films and TV programs.
Episode one: behind Appleyard’s back
Compositions featuring actors with their backs to the camera raise simple but important questions. What expression is on their faces? How are they feeling? The opening shot of Picnic at Hanging Rock maintains a cautious distance from the protagonist, Headmistress Appleyard (Natalie Dormer). The audio has no such restraint. We hear Appleyard’s disturbing inner monologue through voice-over narration, including a one-sided conversation with her late husband (the Headmistress, this time around, is a bit loopy). Director Larysa Kondracki creates a compelling dichotomy: the image pushes us away, while the audio grabs us in a stranglehold.
Lingering behind an actor’s back creates a visual ellipsis; we wait for the scene to continue and the moment to correct itself. Darren Aronofsky used the technique to imply an uncertain fate for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, as did Derek Cianfrance with Ryan Gosling’s character in The Place Beyond the Pines. One of cinema’s most interesting ‘behind the back’ moments occurs in the early, diner-set moments of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 classic Vivre sa vie, about a beautiful Parisian who becomes a sex worker.
Episode two: nature’s dangerous beauty
In the recent Australian campsite thriller Killing Ground, the behaviour of humans made an otherwise scenic location terrifyingly remote – as it did also in Deliverance, one of the films that inspired it. In the great Ozploitation pic Long Weekend, nature itself seemed to turn against the two lead characters – a bickering married couple (played by John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) camping near the water. Were the animals, and other natural elements, somehow working in cahoots?
This moment from Picnic at Hanging Rock also exists in a nebulous space. Viewers – particularly those unfamiliar with the source material and/or Weir’s film – are uncertain whether human behaviour played some role in the disappearance of the girls, or whether there is something ‘wrong’ with the natural order of things. One thing we know for sure: this image is weepingly beautiful. The small figure of the man, compared to the largeness of the lush environment around him, signifies that one person (or even several) are powerless compared to nature, which is a core theme of the series.
Episode three: mirrors in mirrors; dreams within dreams
The presence of mirrors in films and TV shows often has a magical effect, for the same reason that film and television are magical mediums: they are projections that reflect and distort reality. In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, one eerie shot shows Freddy Krueger leering menacingly in the mirror, though he is physically absent from the room. Revealing something in a mirror not present elsewhere is a technique often deployed in horror movies, and most famously used in the ‘mirror mirror on the wall’ sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Shots of mirrors in Picnic at Hanging a Rock don’t conjure fantastical elements. They do however exist in an intangibly fantastical environment, where the mystery of what happened to the girls – and the idea of reality existing in a dream within a dream – has imbued the mirrors with a surreal quality. The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 head trip The Mirror also creates a dream-like ambience, using mirrors and reflections as visual motifs in a nonlinear storyline about the memories of a dying man.
Episode four: a beautiful performance to an audience of none
This shot of a girl in a white costume, alone and spreading her ‘wings’ while a gust of fairy-like light sparkles around her, evokes the recent Australian film The Butterfly Tree, starring Melissa George as a moon-eyed former burlesque dancer. It also visualises feelings explored in coming of age films such as The Getting of Wisdom, which encourage adult viewers to remember the emotions that swirled in our heads when we were young. Perhaps moments when we felt we had much to offer the world but nobody was listening, or when we felt more comfortable performing to an imaginary audience than a real one.
Episode five: the power of white
So much white! The white elements in this shot glare in the foreground, in the colour of the girls’ dresses (which imbue their appearance with a virginal quality) and rise like gaseous fog in the background in the mist coming off the water. There are many shots in Picnic at Hanging Rock with white as the dominant colour.
Visions of white steam and mist formed a memorable part of the director Federico Fellini’s famous 1963 film 8 1/2, a surrealist drama about a filmmaker suffering from ‘director’s block’. One scene is based in and around a huge indoor bathing area, great amounts of steam rising from the water. It is a wet looking moment in a film that is otherwise sharp and crisp looking. Picnic at Hanging Rock, however, never seems to ‘dry off’. The directors and the cinematographer conjure a dewy aesthetic, which has a dripping quality – as if the viewer doesn’t just watch the show, but gets slowly covered by it.
Opening a film or TV episode with a shot of a person submerged in water is a visual cliché, used recently in the Australian surfer film Breath and the Oscar-winning period drama The Shape of Water. The director of Hanging Rock’s final episode, Michael Rymer, doesn’t stay in the water for long. He shows us Miranda (Lily Sullivan) from below, looking up to the surface of the water where she is floating.
Rymer then presents her from above, looking down on the actor as she lies on a wooden raft. It’s as if the scene has corrected itself, the camera finding its bearing. There is a clever synchronicity here between this scene and the shot that introduces Miranda, in the first episode. That image is bathed in blue light and is upside down. The camera corrects itself and spins right way up, showing Miranda sitting by herself on the ground.
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