There’s something spectacularly mesmerizing about Natalie Dormer in Amazon’s new limited series “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” As Hester Appleyard, the English headmistress of a girls’ school in the Australian bush, she’s shrewd, twisted, petty, vengeful, cutting, and all the while, as she rains down both physical and psychological abuse on her students, exceedingly composed. She’s like 8 ounces of sulfuric acid poured into an exquisite golden chalice.
In the six-episode adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Dormer is endlessly fascinating to watch, as she rules the teen girls at the finishing school with an iron fist so cold that it burns. Her Hester is a model of refinement, behind which lurks a past ridden with dark secrets that rattle her in nightmares. Dormer has always stood out in ensembles — I first noticed her as an insolent Anne Boleyn in “The Tudors” and later as the ambitious Margaery Tyrell in “Game of Thrones” — but she also distinguishes herself here as the central character. In short, I couldn’t take my eyes off her, not wanting to miss any of the tiny shifts in her taut face, or the lethal stink-eye she occasionally throws at some terrified victim.
“Bad timing will define your life,” she snaps at a frightened girl who gets her first period on the day of the picnic. She’s pitiless, in her sumptuous and vividly colored dresses.
Dormer is the best thing about “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which was also an indelible 1975 Australian movie by Peter Weir. But she’s not the only worthwhile aspect of the miniseries, even if the story may be a bit overextended at six hours. We learn straight off that four women — three of Hester’s students and one of their teachers — have disappeared during the titular Valentine’s Day outing in 1900. But don’t expect “Picnic” to unfold like a crime procedural, with an endless stream of red herrings and plot twists. The miniseries, adapted by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, is far less straightforward, with surreal visual flourishes, time jumps, and a heavy, threatening atmosphere. The mood is ripe, with rich coloring, off-kilter camera angles (particularly of Hanging Rock), and invasive close-ups.
The most notable among the missing is Miranda (Lily Sullivan), a free-thinking and unafraid girl with an abiding connection to nature. We see her sneaking in and out of the school in the wee hours, barefoot and dressed in a flowing white nightgown. At one point, when a soldier tries to rape her while she’s nuzzling a horse in the barn, she drives a pitchfork into his foot. No pushover, she. Also missing are an heiress, Irma (Samara Weaving); a bright illegitimate girl, Marion (Madeleine Madden); and math teacher Greta (Anna McGahan). The three students seem to have a magical bond, surviving Hester’s oppressive world by making significant eye contact with one another. They’re clearly being schooled to appeal to men, to submit to the system, but you can see their rebelliousness simmering just beneath the surface.
Watching the girls with Hester, I occasionally thought about “The Handmaid’s Tale.” At a time when women are kept down and used by men, which is a strong theme in both stories, some of the worst abuse comes from other women: In “Handmaid’s Tale” it’s from Aunt Lydia and Serena Waterford; in “Picnic” it’s from Hester, who, herself, is treated with scorn by the local women who think she’s common. Hester is working out her own oppression, it seems, and she often has her Bible Studies teacher, Miss Lumley (Yael Stone), do her dirty work for her, caning the girls so as not to get blood on her own hands.
It’s a fascinating dynamic to watch, as the aggression and violence circulate among all the women, and the Victorian era seems to linger. I’m not even going to allude to where the story goes or how it all ends, for those who aren’t familiar with the novel, the excised final chapter released in the 1980s, or Weir’s film. And anyway, the drama is in the transfixing way this story is told, as savagery and civilization perform a ruthless tug of war.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
Starring Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving, Lola Bessis, Yael Stone, Inez Curro, Harrison Gilbertson, Ruby Rees, Madeleine Madden, James Hoare, Philip Quast, Anna McGahan, Nicholas Hope.
On Amazon. Available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.