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A Surprisingly Good Mystery From the Land Down Under
on June 1, 2018
There certainly seems to be a lot of hate for this miniseries but I thought it was very well done. Neither having read the book upon which it is based, nor watched the 1970's Peter Weir film, I was aware that this was the story of teenage girls at a "posh" school in the Australian Outback and the titular picnic at Hanging Rock, from which they mysteriously vanish. Going into it with relatively little information other than that, I have to say that I found it intriguing enough to binge-watch episodes 3-6, and really don't see it as deserving of all the hate it is getting.
The always-enjoyable Natalie Dormer stars as the sinister Mrs. Appleyard, a transplanted Londoner who has opened the girl's school bearing her name in the middle of nowhere. Mrs. Appleyard has many secrets and a past that may not quite be proper and pristine; certainly, it doesn't pay to cross the lady. Mrs. Appleyard is assisted at the school by a hatchet crew of volatile instructors, one of whom, highly-strung and hyper-religious Miss Lumley seems to particularly relish dishing out corporal punishment to unruly girls. As Miss Lumley, Yael Stone gives a terrifying performance as a woman consumed by her faith, yet ingratiating in her willingness to tattle on her co-workers for their perceived misdeeds. Miss Lumley functions as Mrs. Appleyard's henchwoman, and her devotion to the headmistress is almost as strong as her devotion to God. The other three instructors, Mlle. de Poitiers (Lola Bessis), Miss McCraw (Anna McGahan) and Mrs. Delange (Sibylla Budd), have their qualms about the strict discipline at the school but they all do what Mrs. Appleyard demands--up to a point. Eventually, each has her "aha" moment. The core group of girls consists of headstrong, free-spirited Miranda (Lily Sullivan), the group's reluctant leader; snooty and insecure heiress, Irma (Samara Weaving) who believes she's going to marry the very-wealthy boy next door; beautiful, aboriginal Marion (Madeleine Madden), nursing a secret and forbidden crush; whiny and petulant Edith (Ruby Rees); and young and resistant toughie, Sara (Inez Curro) who idolizes Miranda. On a picnic outing with the rest of the students, Miranda, Irma, Marion and Edith decide to explore the forbidding Hanging Rock, the subject of unsavory and unsettling legends. Most of this group, along with Miss McCraw, seems to vanish from the cliffs into thin air, and despite their best attempts, searchers come up empty-handed. As established in the story, each girl had her reasons for wanting to disappear, but the local lawmen doubt that they went willingly. Was it a supernatural occurrence or the dastardly act of an all-too-human perpetrator? The inspector in charge of the case thinks it's the latter though the further he digs into the mystery, the more obtuse it becomes. In the meantime, his prime suspect, Irma's boy next door, Mike (Harrison Gilbertson), has a surprise or two up his own sleeve.
Everyone in the large cast does a fine job with his/her assigned character. I thought Inez Curro, as Sarah, was particularly touching and, in light of her character's arc, very sympathetic, indeed. Natalie Dormer is appropriately witchy as Mrs. Appleyard; she reminded me a little of Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's classic "Rebecca". With her head held high and a deadly calm demeanor, she issues orders and demands subservience from her staff and the students, even as she endures the veiled insults of the area's wealthy residents, who doubt the backstory she's woven for them. In supporting roles, Nicholas Hope and Roslyn Gentle are effective as Mike's snobby relatives, and James Hoare, as their hired man, is also excellent. Ditto for Don Hany and Jonny Pazlovsky as, respectively, Appleyard's potential suitor and the sergeant in charge of the case.
Directors Michael Rymer, Larysa Kondracki and Amanda Brotchie do a fine job, and the hallucinatory photography is outstanding. I would have given this five stars were it not for the fact that it seems to be missing a few scenes that would go a long way towards explaining a few things without giving away the central mystery. I'm not sure if the these scenes were intentionally omittted or if they were cut in the editing room but I feel that it was a big mistake not to have included them in the finished product. I also felt the ending seemed rushed and underwhelming; it felt like the series was unfinished. All in all, I really enjoyed this creepy mystery from down under and am glad I watched it.