Sometimes TV can be exhausting.
I say this as someone who loves TV. Adores the medium more than any other. Someone who’s built a career writing about it.
In this age of peak TV and a gazillion (rough estimate) channels and streaming platforms, fussiness and flourishes abound.
Like a designer who adds a superfluous element to a dress or a painter who chooses one too many colors, sometimes a series doesn’t know when to stop—when to just tell a story plainly, without extraneous embellishments.
Such is the fate that befalls the new Amazon series Picnic at Hanging Rock, from showrunner Larysa Kondracki. The six-episode miniseries, based on the 1967 novel of the same name, follows the disappearance of three students and their teacher in 1900 while on a picnic in the Australian outback. The girls are all students at the mysterious Appleyard College, headed by the even more mysterious headmistress Mrs. Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer). On a Valentine’s Day picnic, Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving), Marion Quade (Madeleine Madden), Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan) and math teacher Greta (Anna McGahan) want to explore the famous geological formation. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t go well for them.
Hester has a past with a capital “P.” She’s fond of inner dialogues with Arthur, the man she’s running from. “You and your hats, Arthur. I thought I’d gotten away,” she intones. Is her scandalous history behind the girls’ disappearance? And, just a thought: If you’re trying to escape someone, perhaps opening up a college bearing your name isn’t the way to go.
The episodes are filled with slow motion, hazy flashbacks, hazier dream sequences and disappearing images. It makes the proceedings tedious, unnecessarily confusing and dare I say boring. That’s not to say these storytelling devices can’t be a good thing, but, as the saying goes, everything in moderation. Here they detract from the performances, which are pretty great. Dormer delivers her caustic dialogue with aplomb. Everything about Hester—her fabulous hairstyles, magnificent dresses, tinted sunglasses and witty one-liners—is mesmerizing. Dormer’s icy stare could silence anyone. She will terrify you. And as the new world she’s created for herself starts to unravel, you might sympathize with her despite your better judgment.
Weaving, Madden and Sullivan are compelling and ethereal as young women who don’t want to conform to societal conventions. They are the popular girls—the Serena van der Woodsens or Regina Georges of Appleyard College. They also won’t be quelled by Hester’s reign of terror, something that infuriates her. Also fantastic is Yael Stone as the fervently religious Bible teacher, Dora Lumley. It took me awhile to realize this is the same actress who plays Lorna Morello on Orange is the New Black. I mean, you know it’s acting and this is what people do, but sometimes an actor’s ability to morph into such a distinctly different character truly boggles the mind.
The action takes place during a time when corporal punishment was an approved disciplinary method. When girls getting their period was a shameful thing. When women had to rely on getting married to assure their future. The series could have explored this more. Instead, it often seems to wallow— through lingering shots and out-of-focus close-ups— in the clichéd notion that all the girls at the school are attracted to one another.
The novel has been brought to life on the screen once before, with the 1975 movie of the same name directed by Peter Weir (The Truman Show). The film is well regarded, and while watching the six episodes of this series, you get the sense that the story would have benefited from forced brevity. Maybe the reason for all the slow motion sequences was really just to fill time?
Picnic at Hanging Rock premieres Friday, May 25 on Amazon Prime Video.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .