Berlin International Film Festival

Is creepy Australian mystery a true story?

The cast of Picnic At Hanging Rock (from left) actors Harrison Gilbertson, Lily Sullivan, Natalie Dormer, Lola Bessis and Ruby Rees.
The cast of Picnic At Hanging Rock (from left) actors Harrison Gilbertson, Lily Sullivan, Natalie Dormer, Lola Bessis and Ruby Rees.

BERLIN • This is a no-brainer. The popular myth that Australia's iconic mystery tale, Picnic At Hanging Rock, is based on true events should help bring it to a global audience, one of its stars said at the Berlin film festival on Monday.

The story of the strange disappearances of three schoolgirls and their governess at a picnic in the remote Australian bush on Valentine's Day 1900 has been reimagined in a six-part television drama series.

Its makers promise a fresh take on the unsettling mystery that adds up to a "terrifyingly eerie" supernatural crime drama, with new twists and characters.

"What I love about Picnic At Hanging Rock is everyone thinks the original novel was based on a true story," said Natalie Dormer of Game Of Thrones fame.

She plays the enigmatic and stern English headmistress Mrs Appleyard.

"It's excellent marketing," she added at the Berlin red carpet premiere.

"They did a fantastic job in the 1960s and in the 1970s", she said of the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, who was deliberately ambiguous about the story's origin, and director Peter Weir's 1975 classic film.

"It's incredibly spooky, whether it's a true story or not," Dormer said, adding that the mystery is both "a national treasure for Australia" and "a universal, international story".

"All the themes of liberation and rebellion, of identity, of an inner struggle with yourself - it's full of universal, timeless themes that are not specific just to Australia," she pointed out.

Another cast member, Ruby Rees, said much of the appeal came from the many complex female characters.

"At its centre, it's a story about women and girls," she added.

"We hear from them in a way that we haven't before, in the book or the film, and so it's exciting, especially now in 2018, that it is such a female-focused production.

"So I think that's the core appeal, the women."

Director Larysa Kondracki said the new version was different from, but respectful of, Lindsay's book or Weir's "canonical" movie, which she labelled as "one of the first few films that put Australian cinema on the map".

As to the true-or-not origins of the dark story, she quipped: "I don't know, that's a mystery. It's a big mystery if it was or wasn't.

"I know the answer, but - Google it - I won't tell you."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2018, with the headline 'Is creepy Australian mystery a true story?'. Print Edition | Subscribe