Picnic at Hanging Rock has UK actress Natalie Dormer thinking back to her own teenage years when friends gathered around ouija boards and pondered the existence of magical realms.
"It's part of the rite of passage of adolescence to explore these esoteric things," she says. "Your hormones are going wild. You're a child yet you feel like a woman and there is that awkward transition that we can all identify with. That energy can get out of hand very quickly."
"You want to believe in higher powers because the world can be a very confusing place and your identity can be a very confusing landscape."
Fifty years after publication, the story of a group of schoolgirls lost in the wilderness still intrigues us with its mix of repressed sexuality, teenage angst and gothic horror. Until now, the best known interpretation of Joan Lindsay's book was Peter Weir's ethereal, soft-focus cinema classic.
But in Foxtel's new six-part miniseries, the story has had an edgy 21st century makeover. This version is darker, grittier, more psychological, with a splashy gothic melodrama edge.
Natalie says that the turbulent emotional landscape of the girls is expressed in the production's wild mix of genres. "It's incredibly funny in places – superbly funny – and it's dark. There's definitely a psychological thriller but also a supernatural element that's really strong. The book feels like that too."
It reminds her a little of the recent smash hit mini-series made from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and also of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. "You can feel the hysteria of those hormones. It's got that energy of a slightly unhinged group of hormonal girls and what they can do to each other."
This production of Picnic has certainly been getting the same sort of pre-release buzz as The Handmaid's Tale, with international sales to Europe, the US and the UK. And it's no wonder. Natalie says she has been hugely impressed by the cast of young Aussie actors. "What Australia has got with Picnic at Hanging Rock," she says, "is a new generation of movie stars."
During The Weekly's exclusive on-set visit, we chatted with most of them, including rising Hollywood star Samara Weaving (recently seen in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), Madeleine Madden (the daughter of renowned art curator Hettie Perkins and the granddaughter of Indigenous rights trailblazer Charles Perkins) and Lily Sullivan (Romper Stomper, Rake), who plays Miranda as a wilful, grounded country girl, at home in the stables and happier in trousers than floor-length lace.
Miranda is a rebel in a world where, Lily says, "young women were being groomed for auction… to be married off. They're being moulded and prodded – literally with corsets and mentally as well."
Natalie describes this new mini-series as a revision of the story through a female lens: "The major themes of Picnic are liberation, rebellion, the fight against oppression," she says. "So it has a lot of resonance with the modern world. I'm very proud that we have brought these stories out into the world now. It's serendipitous to be honest."
For more from our exclusive on-set visit, cast interviews and behind-the-scenes photos, pick up the May issue of The Australian Women's Weekly, out now. Picnic at Hanging Rock screens on Foxtel Showcase from May 6.
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