I’m not really a particularly nostalgic person, but I think films remain outside of nostalgia. I think they are like little worlds you’d lived in – like a period [when] you lived in another country.Peter Weir, commentary, Picnic at Hanging Rock, DVD, The Criterion Collection, 2014, excerpt available at <https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3198-peter-weir-on-picnic-at-hanging-rock>, accessed 23 May 2018.
So says director Peter Weir, recollecting the time he spent realising the Gothic fever dream of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was brought to his attention by eventual executive producer Patricia Lovell. The magnetic pull of the teenage longing, repression and rebellion behind the unexplained disappearance of three finishing-school girls and one of their governesses on Valentine’s Day 1900 was irresistible to the then-emerging director: ‘I read it from cover to cover [and] was gripped by it, and by the fact it was an unsolved mystery […] I was burning with it. I mean, it was just like electricity through my body.’ibid.
As much an Australian classic as the novel itself, Weir’s eponymous 1975 adaptation – shot by Russell Boyd in woozy noonlight and accompanied by Gheorghe Zamfir’s haunting panpipes – was in the vanguard of the Australian New Wave, helping to reignite an industry long left languishing. Following closely on the heels of fellow literary adaptations Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) and Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971), Picnic shares its predecessors’ fascination with primal terror, presenting the inescapably strange, alluring vastness of a land barely understood by its colonial intruders. As critic Rebecca Harkins-Cross frames it in her excellent Ivan Hutchinson Award–winning essay ‘The Shadow of the Rock’, these films ‘struck a cultural nerve that would prove crucial to the national film revival, both presenting terrifying portraits of an untameable interior’.Rebecca Harkins-Cross, ‘The Shadow of the Rock’, Island, issue 141, July 2015, available on the Australian Film Critics Association website, <http://www.afca.org.au/the-shadow-of-the-rock.html>, accessed 27 April 2018.
As the works of the Australian New Wave are still cited as some of the finest films ever produced in this country, it is far from surprising that, during a creative period seemingly obsessed with retelling old stories, both Picnic and Wake in Fright – along with the later impactful work Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992) – have been recently reimagined for television.
Re-climbing the rock
One of three directors tapped by Foxtel to breathe new life into that fateful picnic, Amanda Brotchie followed the lead of writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison in going back to Lindsay’s novel to create the six-part miniseries of the same name. With the ethereal glow of Weir’s film overlaying her memory of the story, she was surprised, upon rereading the book that she found so compelling as a teenager, to find that she ‘had forgotten how dark and earthy it is’. Brotchie tells me that this new take is unafraid to linger in the darkness, nor to make its own bold leaps:
We’re looking at all of the moments that might point to interesting pasts for each of the characters and teasing [those] out, so we are using more of the novel and then also using it as a springboard to dive deeper into some of their stories.
From the outset, a new mystery is folded into the arc of one of the film’s most unforgettable characters – no, not Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert in the original / Lily Sullivan in the series), but Mrs Appleyard. Played with imperious steel by Rachel Roberts in Weir’s adaptation – all buttoned black corset and storm cloud–like hair – she was the very image of a Gothic mistress, much older than the girls in her care. But, incarnated by Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer in the Foxtel series, the widow is immediately brought closer to her pupils, both in age and outlook; subtly, this changes the dynamic between the characters and re-centres the story.
The final shot of the film saw a broken and veiled Appleyard staring emptily as the narrator relayed her unfortunate end at the rock. Here, there’s a dark secret to bury even before the disappearance sends a dark pall over her school. The Foxtel series opens with a veiled Appleyard in silhouette against a great bay window’s warm yellow glow; she is about to purchase this ornate gold-rush house, which is to become her finishing school. Though we hear her negotiate with the silky hauteur of the upper class, her interior monologue – presented in voiceover – is in common cockney: ‘He’ll never find us out ’ere … arse end of the world.’
Who is ‘he’, and what does he hold over her? When, earlier, Appleyard remarks, ‘People always believe their own eyes. Dress like a tart, you’re a tart. Dress like a widow—’ we are inescapably intrigued. This ‘widow’ is not so unlike the rebellious Miranda after all. Their similarities are highlighted in a subsequent scene, in which, in a stable, a soldier attempts to force himself on Appleyard’s most tempestuous student. Having grown up on a cattle station, a naive but not defenceless Miranda promptly drives a pitchfork through the man’s foot, creating a mess left for Appleyard to clean up with a quick-thinking line about a startled horse. She then chastises Miranda with a reminder that she cannot risk her future fortunes over an unworthy boy.
Impeccably cast, Dormer gamely steps out from under the weight of nostalgic expectation. ‘Natalie is such an incredible force, as a person and as an actor,’ Brotchie notes. ‘It’s still a Gothic unravelling of this woman – but, here, it’s even more mysterious than in the novel.’
With the series having much more room to play, you might think the vanishing would be delayed a little. But it occurs before the first episode has even concluded. As a wild-eyed Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Lola Bessis) announces the loss of Miranda, Irma (Samara Weaving), Marion (Madeleine Madden) and Miss McCraw (Anna McGahan), there’s a flicker of Roberts’ haunted despair in Dormer’s eyes – ‘Here it is then: retribution,’ broods Appleyard. Following this plot point, the series is free to look both forward and back. ‘It’s true: the meat of the story that everybody associates with Picnic at Hanging Rock unfolds in the first episode,’ Brotchie explains. ‘The rest of the series [shows] the fallout from that, and also what led up to it, teasing out all of the issues and the politics, and the emotional backstories.’
While Weir has resisted acknowledging the queer subtext suggested by the youthful infatuations in Lindsay’s novel – arguably present in his film whether consciously intended or notibid. – the Foxtel show doubles down on it. Not only is the self-harming orphan Sara (Inez Currõ) overtly smitten with Miranda, but the second episode also tweaks the bond between the affluent Michael (Harrison Gilbertson) and his coachman Albert (James Hoare). Like Appleyard’s escape, it’s hinted that the young Michael’s presence in Australia is the result of an enforced exile: he is fleeing an unspoken scandal in Cambridge, the nature of which is strongly suggested by his stolen glances at Albert’s bare backside while the servant is going for a swim and, later, tantalisingly, by the hopeful refrain of an admittedly difficult future.
Elsewhere, the series ramps up its horror elements through disorienting camera angles, oppressive shadows and a broiling scarlet storm. Brotchie describes this as ‘a deeply cinematic approach to a television series that’s like being inside a nightmare’, adding that keen viewers will spot some of the same locations used by Weir. ‘We spent a lot of time recceing every nook and cranny of Hanging Rock, and some of those places were photographed for a reason.’ She credits one of the series’ other directors, Larysa Kondracki, with bringing a unique perspective to this landscape that is indelibly seared into our cultural memories:
Larysa is Canadian, so it’s a little bit like Ted Kotcheff, who did Wake in Fright, and also like [British] Nicolas Roeg doing another iconic Australian film, Walkabout. This outside eye does bring something to the vision because they are looking at the Australian landscape in a different way that, I think, makes it quite distinct.
Reawakening Broken Hill
When it came to re-envisioning Kenneth Cook’s novel Wake in Fright as a two-part miniseries for Network Ten last year, director Kriv Stenders says there was some consideration of shooting in a new location instead of Broken Hill – the town that inspired the book’s fictional setting of Bundanyabba, and where Kotcheff’s celebrated film was shot. That idea was soon rejected:
Broken Hill is intrinsic to Wake in Fright […] for us, it felt like ground zero. We couldn’t find anywhere that had that remoteness and that starkness and austerity. It’s unique, very much in the middle of the dirt, out on the desert.
The late crime writer Peter Temple commented on this overwhelming environment in his introduction to Text Publishing’s 2001 reissue of the book:
The Yabba [the locals’ term for Bundanyabba] is a city of men, isolated on the endless empty inland plain, its houses clustered on a slight eminence. At night, from afar, the author sees the town’s lights as looking like those of a fleet of ships standing in a vast, dark roadstead. And the Yabba is like a ship – there is nowhere to go, it is an enclosed world with its own rituals, customs and punishments.Peter Temple, ‘A Novel of Menace’, 2001, in Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2012 , p. xv.
In his film, Kotcheff establishes that isolation with a 360-pan around Tiboonda, the tiny outback town that Sydney import schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) cannot wait to escape from during the Christmas holidays, leading inexorably to his being waylaid in the Yabba. In Stenders’ rendition, the isolation is introduced with an immediate stab of terror. A frantic wide shot shows his bloodied Grant (Sean Keenan) bearing a shotgun, sprinting down a deserted bush road, stumbling as he desperately checks over his shoulder. It’s a pure jolt of adrenaline even before we wind backwards and learn what has necessitated his unexpected stopover: his car having hit a kangaroo, the first of two references to the film’s controversial hunt sequence.
Series co-writer Stephen M Irwin – who also penned Stenders’ Keenan-starring film Australia Day (2017) – deferred to the 1961 novel in much the same way that the Picnic TV team relied on their source text. He also rose to Ten’s challenge to contemporise the story. Stenders acknowledges that the Broken Hill of today isn’t entirely changed from that in the 1950s, when Cook was a wildly unhappy ABC journalist there:
The drinking culture has now been added to by the ice epidemic, and mental-health issues are now even greater. We actually found out during our research that, at one point in the 1990s, Broken Hill had the highest suicide rate in the world. That really fed into our vision.
Keenan’s Grant, under the influence of possibly drugged beer, likewise finds his funds catastrophically drained after an unhinged night of gambling – illegally playing a game of two-up – which prolongs his stay in the Yabba. But his encounters with the strangely secretive, aggressively territorial locals also draw him in to a recognisably more current underworld of dodgy real-estate developers and bush meth labs.
Despite Grant being left with no money and nowhere to run, and unsure of whom he can trust, this adaptation still drips with toxic masculinity, particularly in the form of local cop boss Jock Crawford (David Wenham), whose cold, dead stare makes him look like he might lynch Grant at any moment. It’s also there in the disgraced Doc Tydon (Alex Dimitriades), who lives in a caravan on the outskirts of town and gets his sexual kicks wherever and with whomever he can. Dimitriades is a force of nature as Doc – which is even more noteworthy given that, according to Stenders, Donald Pleasence’s powerhouse turn in the film scared off several prospective actors. Doc’s fate is, however, very different in this retelling, with a shocking twist occurring during the series’ take on the film’s infamous kangaroo hunt. This time, we see feral pigs: ‘The pig hunt is where the murder mystery comes into it,’ says Stenders. ‘That was the fun part of going, “Well, actually, now we can break away from the book and from the film.”’
Stenders recounts that he and Irwin purposefully expanded the role of women in their narrative, too, inserting gun-happy drug dealer Mick Jaffries (Anna Samson) and drawing out the character of nurse Janette Hynes (Caren Pistorius). ‘In the book, Janette has a much bigger role, and we took the potential of that and really fleshed it out in our version, making her a co-lead,’ Stenders says. Is she Grant’s way out of town? Or does her connection to Doc mean that she’s just another trap? The series keeps us guessing.
Stenders was well aware that he would put a lot of noses out of joint by tackling a treasured Australian film – albeit one that local critics and audiences at the time likewise thumbed their noses at. ‘I kept saying, “We’re not remaking Wake in Fright – it’s its own thing inspired by the film and the book,”’ he muses. ‘I want it to work in parallel with them, and to bring attention back to them for a new generation.’ Moreover, Stenders identifies Kotcheff’s film as a seminal influence on his work, and as signalling ‘the dawn of the new industry’.
The rise of Patriot Blue
Though Wake in Fright has restaged its narrative in the present day, the appearance of the original characters suggests it is a reboot, rather than a depiction of history having repeated. Stan series Romper Stomper is a different beast altogether.
Breaking the streaming platform’s record for most views in a twenty-four-hour period when it debuted on New Year’s Day 2018Alex Zaharov-Reutt, ‘Stan’s Romper Stomper Stumps Up with Record Ratings’, iTWire, 3 January 2018, <https://www.itwire.com/entertainment/81319-stan-s-romper-stomper-stumps-up-with-recording-ratings.html>, accessed 23 May 2018. the Romper Stomper series is a direct continuation of the story established in Wright’s 1992 film. Picking up the pieces twenty-five years after the death of neo-Nazi Hando (Russell Crowe), the Stan title centres on a new iteration of the far right: Patriot Blue, led by Blake Farron (Lachy Hulme). The fury of Hando has partly given way to an arguably more insidious and politically savvy approach, with the media massaged by Wenham’s Andrew Bolt–like television host Jago Zoric.
Whereas once it was the immigrant Asian population ‘swamping’ Melbourne, which Hando screamed bloody murder over, now the enemy number one is the Muslim community, closely followed by Sudanese-Australians. Further complicating matters, the series depicts a militant pushback from far-left Antifa forces, including radicalised student Petra (played by Picnic’s Sullivan).
In the midst of all this madness, ex-soldier Kane (Toby Wallace) surfaces and vies with Blake for command of Patriot Blue. It turns out that the youngster is the estranged son of Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie reprising her role), Hando’s conflicted love interest from the original film, who desperately hopes to dissuade Kane from following in his father’s footsteps. The Gabe–Kane axis is critical, according to Wright, who returns as co-writer and co–executive producer, as well as directing two of the series’ six episodes. ‘It’s the main connecting rod between the past and the present,’ he says. ‘The concurrent themes of the show are wrapped up in that relationship. The search for identity, the sins of the father, the question of whether blood is destiny.’
In updating the story’s warring factions, the team drew inspiration from both current headlines and echoes of the past, with Wright noting that memories of the movie were paramount in the TV series’ success.
Bonnie Elliot’s photographic colour palette and Jo Ford’s production design were clearly influenced by the movie […] Richard Pike’s reinterpretation of the old theme [music] in Episode 1 was brilliant […] I thought Anna Borghesi’s wardrobe design was conspicuously brilliant and bold, and she was riffing on her own work on the movie.
Addressing head-on the fears of vigilantism, Wright has little time for those who claim that works like Romper Stomper promote violence. ‘This was the line trotted out by movie critic David Stratton and youth worker Les Twentyman years ago,’ he asserts.
The man who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley [Jr], was obsessed with the 1976 movie Taxi Driver [Martin Scorsese], but does anybody want to seriously argue that banning the film would have made any significant difference to Hinckley’s criminal nature?
To Wright, censorship is not the answer: ‘It deflects from what’s really required: some hard thinking and the will to change the causes of violence and alienation, which are complex and multifaceted.’
The legacy of Romper Stomper, according to its director, is its unblinking gaze at real undercurrents in society that some would prefer not to discuss. ‘Once you start pretending there are easy fixes, you won’t solve anything,’ he says.
The storytelling industry is too often used as a kind of soma for the public, to keep people at ease. But a show like Romper should do the opposite while never heavy-handedly editorialising, which is what some critics insist upon. Those critics are wrong.
Arguably, it’s this dark and chaotic heart that most closely aligns Romper Stomper with Picnic and Wake in Fright. The terror that Harkins-Cross has identified as being elicited by these New Wave films creeps into the very fibre of the Australian viewership’s being and frays the edges of our imagined civilisation; it is a powerful force that refuses to allow us to forget by gnawing at our most basic survival instincts.
Perhaps that is why these stories endure, elevated beyond the pleasures of nostalgia. As Stenders reminds us, retelling old stories in new ways is part of a filmmaker’s job:
We have a film culture and history in Australia now that we can actually embrace and celebrate. So, with things like Picnic and Storm Boy [Henri Safran, 1976] being remade, I think it’s very healthy and the sign of a mature industry.
|1||Peter Weir, commentary, Picnic at Hanging Rock, DVD, The Criterion Collection, 2014, excerpt available at <https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3198-peter-weir-on-picnic-at-hanging-rock>, accessed 23 May 2018.|
|3||Rebecca Harkins-Cross, ‘The Shadow of the Rock’, Island, issue 141, July 2015, available on the Australian Film Critics Association website, <http://www.afca.org.au/the-shadow-of-the-rock.html>, accessed 27 April 2018.|
|5||Peter Temple, ‘A Novel of Menace’, 2001, in Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2012 , p. xv.|
|6||Alex Zaharov-Reutt, ‘Stan’s Romper Stomper Stumps Up with Record Ratings’, iTWire, 3 January 2018, <https://www.itwire.com/entertainment/81319-stan-s-romper-stomper-stumps-up-with-recording-ratings.html>, accessed 23 May 2018.|