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Natalie Dormer Revels in the Mystery of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

Natalie Dormer is delicious as a different type of Hester Appleyard in the re-imaging of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Natalie Dormer bores into you with just a fleeting glance in Amazon’s ravishing miniseries, Picnic at Hanging Rock. You will never know what is going on inside her head, because her Hester Appleyard keeps you at a considerable distance. It’s a performance that surprised me in many ways, especially upon repeat viewings of the series. Hester is holding onto many secrets, but you’d never know it due to her harsh demeanor and polished steeliness.

Joan Linday’s beloved Australian novel has been adapted once before–Peter Weir helmed the first feature version in 1975–but this take really delves into the original source material and messes with your head. This is not your standard period drama. The series, and Dormer’s performance, are flying stealthily under the radar.

At Appleyard College, Dormer’s Hester Appleyard rules with a disquieting authority–she seems to glide across the screen at times. The role was something Dormer couldn’t turn down.

(Photo: Amazon)

“Hester Appleyard is delicious, because she’s basically two roles for the price of one. She is obviously the tyrant of the Appleyard College, but as we pull back layers, it leads to that construct. We see the persona. Over the six hours of Picnic, the layers fall back and we see Hester, who has come from rat-run Victorian London. She invents herself and runs away from her demons and her pain. For me, there were two characters there. And it really was Larysa Kondracki who sent me the most beautiful letter who basically said I need an actress who make Appleyard three dimensional and would see, ultimately, vulnerability and humanize her instead of making her a monster. I was very curious to explore that. The writing was so strong, and Larysa had such a stylistic vision. I felt it would be churlish to turn such a strong, inspiring female creative team down.”

Peter Weir’s critically-acclaimed film was praised for its dreamy quality, and this miniseries pays homage to that original incarnation and then tweaks it. The sequence at Hanging Rock is beautifully shot, but there is something unsettling and sinister lurking. There is something very traditional about how that section feels, but it’s contrasted by a lot of other moments in the series. This version resembles a gothic nightmare. The word that came to my mind during the entire time I watched Picnic was “psychedelic.”

“When I spoke with Larysa before I took the job, I had no interest in doing a traditional costume drama. That’s nothing I needed to enforce: Natalie Dormer in a period drama. This felt in spite of the horses, and in spite of the corsets. It’s supernatural—it’s almost sci-fi in places and the fact that it’s an allegory and metaphor. The way it explores inequality in certain places. There’s a dreamlike quality to it, a surreality, and an absurdity in addition to the dark gothicness. I agree with you. It’s so much more sophisticated, intelligent, and trippy. I love your definition of it. Of course, that’s what lends itself with what Joan Lindsay did with the original novel. Larysa referred to it as a “choose your own adventure.” She has really lovely and whacky ideas of all the girls being inside Hester’s head. You can have supernatural or sci-fi theories while you watch it, and I think Joan Lindsay would be tickled by that. She was a white witch herself. I love it.”

(Photo: Amazon)

Picnic at Hanging Rock really explores the themes of femininity and self-discovery through the girls who attend Appleyard College. Lily Sullivan’s Miranda is always a target of the staff to step back in line, and Madeleine Madden’s Marion is exploring her sexuality with a teacher at the school. Even Dormer’s character seems to be underestimated by older members of the community because of her age and lack of a husband. With streaming dramas like The Handmaid’s Tale considering the themes of women’s bodies and the rights women have, Picnic shows you that we are still combating these issues over 100 years later. 

“When you watch Picnic at Hanging Rock, it demands a reflective moment of how much has changed for women and how little has changed, but not just for women. Storylines also refer to sexual identity for both genders and elements of class and race. It is about society dictating what you should be and how that jars with your sense of self. What your position should be and how you consider yourself and how that jars with the opportunity and liberation and desperation to free your own spirit within. I think we can all very much identify with that in the madness of 2018. The terror of this technological age that we are in. I think we have a lot in common with the Victorians and the way they were leaping forward with their own form of technologies. It has a lot of parallels to the modern world. Thank God women now have the majority to vote—but not in all places of course To me, it’s interesting how it punctuates 1900, 1967 (which is when Lindsay wrote it in an era of feminist revolution if you stretch back) and where we are now.”

While Dormer’s Hester may keep herself everyone at arm’s length, one of the most intriguing relationships she has is with Yael Stone’s Mrs. Lumley. Lumley is equally despised by the girls of Appleyard, and at first appears to slightly bond the two women. Dormer told me that Hester wouldn’t be able to really regard her colleague in that light.

“I don’t think she trusts anyone. While Hester can’t shake off the street rat part of her, she doesn’t judge people based on things like color of their skin or sexual preference. She doesn’t care that McCraw is a lesbian. She doesn’t reprogram her brain just to fit what society thinks of people. She probably identifies with Sara because she’s an orphan. Hester is the least self-aware character I’ve ever played. She’s steely but not strong. She’s profoundly lonely and she feels isolated. I felt bad for her really. There’s a moment where Hester asks Mrs. Lumley how she keeps the memories at bay. When Mrs. Lumey says she prays, that answer breaks her heart, because she can’t find that comfort in religion.”

(Photo: Amazon)

Dormer relished the idea of playing the gray areas of the character. She admitted that Hester acts in aggressively dark ways to keep the girls in line, but the ambiguity is what really interested her.

“That binary storytelling–your Star Wars or Avengers–has its place, and it’s good we have them. Our culture fixates on light and dark or good versus evil, but when you’re playing real people with broken humanity and act monstrously, that’s great drama. Hester rolls up her sleeves and gets into the grey.”

The ambiguity to a portion of Picnic‘s ending is refreshing in times when we need everything to be tidy and clean. The entire duration of the series is mysterious, so it would feel strange if all of the mysteries were solved. Dormer recognizes having a respect for an audience’s intelligence and sophistication, “You need to claim the story for yourself.”

How Picnic plays with your head makes it one of the most refreshing limited series this season, and Dormer’s performance is a stunning example of control in dreamy, unhinged chaos. It’s one of the most ambitious series I’ve seen all year. It’s truly psychedelic.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is available now on Amazon.