Have you ever put your heart and soul into making something, only to say... meh, nevermind? That's the feeling I got when I finished the final episode of the new Australian mini-series adaptation Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is based on a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, which also came to the screen in a 1973 feature film. I hadn't heard of the book prior to starting the show, which means I had to resist the temptation to read anything about it.
Had I read the book or anything else written about the book, I would've known that it had no ending. That is, it had an ending and the publisher made the author remove it. The last chapter was published post-posthumously. Why on earth would a publisher remove the last chapter when this left the book with quite literally no resolution whatsoever? I know that if you are a fan of the book or the movie or the miniseries, you might accuse me of being a Philistine. I might just be exactly that, but believe me I am not afraid of ambiguity. However, one could be forgiven if, knowing nothing else besides the fact of the omitted chapter, one concluded that this was because the author's intended resolution didn't resolve anything in any satisfying way. The publisher thought that letting the average reader fill in their own interpretation was far better than any interpretation the author had to give. Maybe they were wrong. The makers of the new miniseries, however, clearly thought otherwise. They preferred to stick to the headless canonical version rather than attempt to incorporate Lindsay's first draft and its intended ending.
Don't get me wrong. Parts of this series are really great. I'd be less angry if they weren't, because I wanted to like this adventure. The basic premise is that in 1900, wealthy supposed widow Hester Appleyard shows up in Australia and purchases an estate, where she subsequently founds a ladies finishing school. The girls who come to her tend to be from families who are well off but cannot send their daughters to more traditional schools for one reason or another. For example, one is an orphan adopted by a bachelor gentleman adventurer and another is the mixed race illegitimate child of an aristocrat. Mrs. Appleyard hates the Australian landscape and rarely allows her charges to venture outside the college grounds. One day she submits to a picnic at Hanging Rock, a local volcanic formation. Three of the girls disappear and the remainder of the story focuses on the search for the missing students and the effect it has on the community, which in turn takes us on a winding journey through the history of the main characters and their relationships to one another.
Everything is perfect most of the way through. The acting is strong and the cinematography is beautiful. It all unfolds beneath an electronic score that is very modern yet somehow fits its Victorian setting. The whole damn thing is just fun to watch. The themes are also well drawn. Just as there is a reason why each of the students must attend a finishing school that is essentially a magic kingdom in the Australian bush, there is a reason why Appleyard founded the school the begin with. They are all on the fringes of society, even the refined ones. Some are hoping to escape the darkness of their past in a new world. All have found the role of women in Victorian English society stifling. And yet, they don't find escape at the college. As an orphan who later became part of a gang, Appleyard is obsessed with establishing order and propriety. The girls know that no matter what freedom they may find in each other's company, their families have expectations of them upon graduation. In the case of dark skinned Marion, she discovers that no amount of wealth, good intentions, or education will ever raise her above the circumstances of her birth.
It is no surprise then that the girls get a little wild and that three of them may take one of their few opportunities for truly autonomous agency (see how I used that word!) to simply disappear. Indeed, for much of the story it appears that maybe that is all that happened. Perhaps somewhere someone would find a tree scrawled with something like "Croatoan" and everyone would assume that they were killed by the natives rather than come to terms with the notion that educated children of proper society would chose to join them. And yet, there is also some indication of super natural strangeness. I guess that wouldn't be contradictory to the kids going native, given the fascination white people have with the supposed magical properties of those living closer to nature. The girls fall asleep while at Hanging Rock and all the watches stop and compasses no longer work. There is a persistent theme of something to do with time - I'm not sure what beyond "something" that really is - with lots of reference to clocks and the way we perceive time's passage. We get the impression that maybe Hanging Rock is some kind of Australian Bermuda Triangle. At times characters see or hear things that happened in the near past or future. The series achieves a very effective eeriness surrounding everything connected to the rock and the school.
This is fertile material. It is a fascinating idea to weave a story of female repression and the search for release with metaphysical elements, but without resorting to such tired tropes as witchcraft. I also like the idea of how this might be tied together with some sort of "wrinkle in time", as if the only way to escape their lives is to escape the bounds of time itself. It could've gone that way, but it didn't. Instead we get a dead end. This is the moment where the creators turn to us and say they have left the conclusion as an exercise for the audience. How many writers, musicians, and movie makers have you heard say something to the effect of: "I didn't want to impose my own interpretation. I wanted the reader of viewer to engage with the story on their own level and take away from it whatever they might." I suppose that this can be an honest statement, but more often than not I think it is because the creator had a few impressions that he or she didn't know what to do with.
There is such a thing as the Zen Koan, of course. It is a story that does not have a specific interpretation or resolution because having one would destroy the whole purpose of the thing. They are designed for ambiguity, but are also designed with references that needle the intellect and try to shove our minds a little to the left or right, where we might see something that was there all along but was somehow invisible to us without that half-inch of new perspective. I'm not sure that Hanging Rock is a koan. Maybe it is and I'm not getting it. If so, I hope I will eventually. However, what I think I experienced was a sequence of masterful impressionist paintings that someone tried to connect in a story that didn't quite connect, and for which there is no satisfying interpretation without being given just a little more to work with. The result is equal parts exhilarating and frustrating.