Review: Taking Another Spooky Hike Up ‘Hanging Rock’

As a novel (in 1967) and a film (in 1975), “Picnic at Hanging Rock” had a couple of features that could be problematic in 2018.

Set in 1900 in the Australian countryside, where provincial gentility rubbed up against indigenous culture and wild nature, the story centered on a series of disappearances and deaths of girls and women — symbolically done in by, or perhaps mystically transcending, their repressive environment. It was not a story of empowerment.

Even worse, by current standards, the instigating mystery — the disappearance of three boarding-school girls and one of their teachers during a hike up Hanging Rock, an actual geological feature near Melbourne — was left unsolved. Did they jump, did they run, were they killed, were they transported? No definitive answer was provided. In the peak-TV era, there is no greater heresy.

So what were the creators of a new, six-episode “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” made for Australian television and streaming on Amazon beginning Friday, to do? (Besides say, you know what? We’ve taken a look at this thing and changed our minds.) The evidence suggests they couldn’t settle on one answer to that question.

The writers, Beatrix Christian (who did the screenplay for the excellent Ray Lawrence movie “Jindabyne,” based on a Raymond Carver story) and Alice Addison, have stuck with the basic framework already set forth in the Joan Lindsay novel and the Peter Weir film.

But within and around that structure, they’ve been busy. In addition to the historical-supernatural spook fest of the original, there are a number of narratives fighting for space in this new “Picnic.”

There’s a Moll Flanders-style back story for the school’s headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones”), which helps explain her desperate desire to maintain respectability and to exert control over the girls. The tale of the orphaned student Sara (Inez Curro) has been expanded and made even more Dickensian.

There’s now some solemnly overheated melodrama involving sexual exploration and jealousy, and every once in a while a modern mean-girl comedy takes over. And in case we forget that the whole thing started life as a Victorian ghost story, some screen time is devoted to reading “The Turn of the Screw” out loud.

All this embellishment comes with a commensurate multiplication of tones and styles, sometimes within a scene. (The directors are Larysa Kondracki, Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie.) Fairly straightforward period drama mixes, uneasily, with thoroughly contemporary flourishes of satirical comedy and theatrical self-consciousness. Ms. Dormer, who narrates flashbacks to her unsavory past, occasionally punctuates a scene by turning her feline gaze straight into the camera.

The actors mostly acquit themselves well, taking things as straightforwardly as possible, though Ms. Dormer’s coy seductiveness isn’t a good fit for the headmistress (and Yael Stone of “Orange Is the New Black” goes way over the top as the most pious of the school’s governesses).

The vaudevillian, throw-everything-at-the-wall approach may reflect the creators’ sensibilities, or the need to fill a little over five hours of running time. But it also feels as if it might be a direct, somewhat panicked reaction to the ambiguities of the story.

Ms. Christian and Ms. Addison have taken every latent idea, every veiled suggestion, in the material and made it explicit. Every piece of subtext has been dredged up so that it can be turned into banal commentary on the benighted attitudes of the provincial patriarchy toward gender, race, class and sexuality. (In that sense, this “Picnic” is reminiscent of Jane Campion projects like “The Piano” and, in a more contemporary vein, “Top of the Lake.”) It’s as if they fear that anything left unexplained could, in the current climate of political and cultural correctness, be used against them.

The effect of all this addition is diminution. Mr. Weir’s film, while by no means a masterpiece, is a creepily effective tour-de-force — he uses his mastery of image and mood to make palpable both the stultifying atmosphere of Victorian Australia and the punishing heat and vertigo of a hike up Hanging Rock.

Without that kind of control and pictorial fluency, the story loses its sensuality, and all that’s left is a fairly threadbare, clichéd melodrama. In the end, the more we know about why the girls disappeared, the less we feel.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Streaming on Amazon on Friday

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‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ Returning to TV in 2019

Would this be considered a reboot or a re-woof? (O.K., we’ll stop now.)

But “Clifford The Big Red Dog,” the animated children’s series based on the books that began in 1963 by Norman Bridwell, is coming back to television in Fall 2019, Scholastic will announce on Wednesday. It will run concurrently on Amazon Prime and PBS Kids, bringing back the lovable red dog who grows from a small puppy to one larger than a house.

“There is something enduring in Clifford’s gentle, loyal spirit that touches fans even after they become adults,” Iole Lucchese, the executive producer of the series, said in a statement. “We see it in tributes on social media and in fan art, and of course, in every parent who grew up with Clifford and now shares their love of him with their preschoolers..”

The original version of the series debuted on PBS in 2000 and ran for three seasons, airing in 110 countries and picking up several Daytime Emmy nominations. John Ritter, who died in 2003, voiced Clifford — he was posthumously nominated for an Emmy in 2004. A spinoff series, “Clifford’s Puppy Days,” starring Lara Jill Miller and Henry Winkler, among others, ran from 2003 to 2006.

Clifford was first created in the 1960s by Mr. Bridwell, a then-freelance artist living in New York City. He wasn’t having much luck with his drawing portfolio with children’s book publishers, but one of them suggested he make his own story to accompany one of the sketches. He did — making a bloodhound larger than life, accompanied by Emily Elizabeth, named after his daughter. He was going to name the dog Tiny, but Mr. Bridwell’s wife, Norma, thought the name was boring and suggested Clifford.

Scholastic — ahem — bit, and a best-selling franchise spawning dozens of books, translated into 16 languages, and multiple television shows was born.

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DealBook Briefing: The Inside Story of How Walmart Won Over Flipkart

Two years, two continents and a big shift in the American retail giant’s strategy underpinned its biggest-ever acquisition.

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Microsoft Tries a New Role: Moral Leader

Top executives of the company, which was once tech’s biggest villain, are outspoken advocates for protecting user privacy and establishing ethical guidelines for new technology like artificial intelligence.

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Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting 2018: What to Watch

Tens of thousands of investors have descended on Omaha Saturday for the annual meeting of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. DealBook will be here providing analysis

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Common Sense: Amazon, the Elephant in the Antitrust Room

The AT&T case could lead to an expanded view of the content and distribution market, perhaps changing what constitutes antitrust violation.

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Amazon, Not Waiting for HQ2, Announces Projects in Boston and Vancouver

The e-commerce giant, while mulling 20 finalists for its second headquarters, has kept up a “blistering” pace of expansion for technology jobs and fulfillment centers.

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DealBook Briefing: Has Walmart Beaten Amazon for Control of Flipkart?

If Walmart succeeds in buying control of India’s biggest e-commerce company, the retail giant could seize the top spot in a growing, lucrative market.

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Facebook Takes the Punches While Rest of Silicon Valley Ducks

Google’s ad business is twice as big as Facebook’s. But executives at Google and other big tech companies have avoided intense scrutiny. For now.

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Tech Tip: Moving Your E-Book Collection to One Device

Q. Is it possible to read Nook books on a Kindle? Is there an e-reader that handles books from multiple e-bookstores?

A. The Barnes & Noble Nook e-books and Amazon’s Kindle e-books use different formats, but dedicated users have shown it is possible to convert and read Nook books on an Amazon device. How you do it depends on the hardware you have — and can take some technical fiddling to copy over Nook books to a Kindle e-reader or Fire tablet.

Slinging e-books between two brands of e-readers is generally unsupported by all companies. It can also involve breaking the built-in copyright protections — so read all the fine print to fully understand what is allowed.

One approach is sideloading the Barnes & Noble Nook app (or even the Google Play store) for Android onto an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, which allows you to download and read your Nook books within their own app. You can find various book-moving tutorials for e-readers and Fire tablets online with a quick search.

Photo

An inexpensive Android tablet loaded with all your favorite reading apps is one way to get the various branches of your personal digital library on one device. Credit The New York Times

If you do not want to put a lot of effort into corralling all your digital books on one tablet, you can go another route. If you have an Android, iOS or Windows 10 tablet at your disposal, you can install the Nook, Kindle, Kobo and other e-book mobile apps there to unify your collection on one device. If you are looking to replace an old Nook e-reader with something more versatile, an inexpensive Android-based tablet stocked with e-book apps can serve as an all-purpose portable library for all your e-books.

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