Picnic at Hanging Rock: What happened to the lost schoolgirls?

A TV reboot of the eerie tale set in Victorian-era Australia explores the schoolgirls’ fate

Natalie Dormer’s Mrs Appleyard has a sexy, contemporary air with John Lennon shades and a screw-you attitude

Natalie Dormer’s Mrs Appleyard has a sexy, contemporary air with John Lennon shades and a screw-you attitude

 

It is 43 years since Peter Weir bolstered the emerging Australian new wave with the extraordinary Picnic at Hanging Rock. His cinematic adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s beguiling mystery novel is a gorgeously photographed, unsettling, eerie tale that remains potent today.

Its dreamlike mixture of horror, mystery and barely suppressed sapphic love stayed with audiences long after they left theatres. The reboot that begins on BBC Two on Wednesday starring Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer is further evidence it is a story that just won’t die .

The premise is simple: repressed Victorian schoolgirls from Appleyard College visit Hanging Rock, a volcanic formation near Mount Macedon on St Valentine’s Day in 1900. Three of the girls and one of their teachers go missing in unusual circumstances, kicking off an enticing mystery that is never satisfactorily solved.

It feels like the remake has popped up out of nowhere, but nothing about the story feels dated. It may take place 8,000 miles south-west, but it chimes well with modern Nordic noir. We have a familiar combination of missing children (The Killing), dark secrets (Modus) and the fatal power of the elemental (Jordskott). You can also see echoes of its metaphysical ponderings in Westworld and Battlestar Galactica.

We should not be surprised that Picnic on Hanging Rock had a big influence on the second season of one of television’s most critically acclaimed shows, The Leftovers . Co-creator and executive producer Damon Lindelof said that “what is particularly amazing about that form of storytelling is that you’re now about to watch them disappear and the movie just told you you are never going to find out where they went”.

Before frenzied Redditors read the entrails of every TV show being broadcast, Picnic at Hanging Rock’s obsessive fans were busy with their own theories of what happened to the girls. Skeptics and dullards thought an accidental fall or rock slide likely culprits, though others were more creative. Some put the blame on indigenous land spirits who officiously guard the site, sacred to the Wurrenjerrie people.

Others said the girls slipped through a dimensional portal or were abducted by aliens. Many favoured the time-slip theory and there is definitely mileage in this one.

The book hints at a jumbled chronology on the rock and Lindsay herself experienced time-slip phenomena twice in her life, and reported that clocks often stopped in her presence. All bizarre enough, though the wackadoodles final chapter Lindsay wrote that was excised from the original novel and published after her death trumps them all.

Suitably, for a tale with temporal disturbance, the movie feels ahead of its time. Years before the Blair Witch Project fooled some audiences into believing Heather, Josh and Mike really had gone missing in the Maryland woods, Picnic at Hanging Rock presented the tale as if it had really happened.

The film begins with a title card that reads “On Saturday 14 February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mount Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace.” Lindsay finishes her novel with an extract from a Melbourne newspaper about the disappearances.

There is, however, no evidence that Appleyard College even existed, much less that such a tragedy befell it. The fact that February 14th 1900 fell on a Wednesday, not a Saturday, only casts further doubt.

As with so much else, Lindsay preferred to leave the question ambiguous, prefacing her novel with: “As … all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.”

The remake wisely draws heavily on the elements that made the film such an intoxicating hit. The central mystery of the missing girls remains the same, the homoerotic element is centre stage, and the eternal conflict between the coloniser and brute nature is still strongly felt.

There are significant changes to the characters though. Dormer’s Mrs Appleyard is a far cry from Rachel Roberts’ stern battle-axe from the movie. Thirty years younger, though no less formidable, she has a sexy, contemporary air with John Lennon shades and a “screw you” attitude. The new Miranda is earthier than the ethereal princess of the movie, the waifish Sara is a sight more resilient and Marion is now an indigenous Australian.

Like all great myths, it will change a little with each retelling, but its foundations remain sound. The architecture of the story resists simple understandings. Interpret it as metaphysical parable, a female coming-of-age or lesbian love story, and you will only ever be part right. It is not a puzzle to be solved, rubber-stamped and filed away.

Fittingly for a novel that came to its author in a dream, it remains tantalisingly beyond our grasp. Hanging Rock, mute and immutable, doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

Picnic at Hanging Rock starts at 9pm on Wednesday on BBC Two

– Guardian