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Not Your Grandfather’s – or Grandmother’s – ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

TV reworking of the Australian literary and film classic strives for "sophisticated storytelling"

Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the new TV adaption of the Australian cult classic, kicked off the Berlin Film Festival’s TV sidebar Monday, and while the show has been generating quite a bit of buzz, getting it made was initially tough because of the long shadow cast by Peter Weir’s critically acclaimed 1975 film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel.

“No one wanted to do it,” said the new show’s director, Larysa Kondracki, discussing the series shortly after the first two episodes premiered at the Berlinale Series.

“You’d tell any crew member that you’re making ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock,’ and they’d ask, ‘Why?’ Because it’s a great book, it’s a great thing. ‘No, absolutely not, I’m not going to touch that.’

“But something about it lingered and when you read the first page [of the TV adaptation], you realize this isn’t the original film. This is something else.”

Set in 1900, the story centers on a group of young women at a boarding school who inexplicably vanish at Australia’s Hanging Rock while on a Valentine’s Day picnic.

Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones,” “Hunger Games”), who plays strict headmistress Hester Appleyard, described Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison’s script as “visionary,” adding that it was “sophisticated storytelling for a sophisticated audience.”

Dormer initially balked at the historical drama. After performing in such high-profile costume dramas as “The Tudors” and “Game of Thrones,” the British actress said she “didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a corset wearer.”

Meeting Kondracki and reading the script changed her mind.

“I’m so glad I did,” Dormer said, stressing that “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is not your typical costume drama. “Don’t be under any illusions because of the costumes and horses. This is a very modern thriller-mystery, a dramatic piece.”

Variety International Editor Henry Chu, who conducted the Drama Series Days onstage conversation with Dormer and Kondracki, noted that the series seemed to have elements of “A Room With a View,” “The Shining” and “Mean Girls.”

On Dormer’s casting as the headmistress, Kondracki said it was important for her to cast someone in the role who was closer in age to the girls in the school “so you could really feel just a few years’ difference and that Hester could have been one of these girls and that they’re also a real threat” to her, an aspect that would have been lost with an older headmaster.

Dormer added that the casting was actually accurate for the time, pointing to such literary characters as Jane Eyre and Blanche DuBois. “A woman was a spinster if she wasn’t married by the time she was in her late 20s.”

Discussing the series’ themes of repressed sexuality, Kondracki said there was “a beautiful scene” in the third episode: “It’s a kiss between two girls and it’s not about sexuality,” said Kondracki, a Canadian who has directed episodes of “The Americans” and “The Walking Dead.” “It’s about discovery and friendship….There’s a sexiness to this show, but it’s restrained.”

Dormer called it a “sexiness not through the male gaze. It’s sexiness through female sexuality. It’s sensual.

“There’s magic to this,” she added. “It feels like the spirit of Joan Lindsay is with us. There is something transcendental. That’s what Larysa created – a touch of fairy dust.”

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