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RESTING IN THE SHADE of an ancient fig tree, the stars of Picnic at Hanging Rock look like they've somehow stepped through time.

Resplendent in period costume with ankle-length hems, lace-up boots and bone corsets to keep their postures just right, they are the perfect picture of colonial Australian ladies. But it comes at a cost. When Lily Sullivan – who portrays central character Miranda Reid in the upcoming six-part series – tries to move, she quickly signals she's stuck.

"I think I've given myself a dead leg just sitting here!" she laughs as her co-stars Samara Weaving and Madeleine Madden help her shift to a more comfortable position.

"These corsets," adds Weaving, who brings Miranda's classmate Irma Leopold to the small screen. "We got rid of them for a reason... They're not good!"

It's all part of the rich tapestry that sets the scene for a retelling of one of Australia's best-known mysteries and, as uncomfortable as the elaborate costumes are, the women admit there's an upside to the inconvenience. "You know what? The corsets really help [us get into character]," reveals Madden.

"You feel suppressed, you need other people to help you get dressed, you need someone to help you put your shoes on. It has made us really come together to help each other get changed, even in the bathroom, as women would have back then. We've really banded together because we need each other."

The Rebellion

That theme, of women coming together to help each other in a time of need, is central to this newest version of the classic story – making its debut on showcase this month. It was first released as a novel in 1967 by author Joan Lindsay, then catapulted to international fame in 1975 by Peter Weir's iconic film.

Now Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the country's most enduring thrillers. Set in a remote finishing school in 1900, the drama follows a group of young women from different backgrounds as they struggle under their strict English headmistress, Mrs Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer).

Forming "The Rebellion", as Sullivan describes it, the girls enjoy a number of small victories against the authorities at the Appleyard College For Young Ladies with their recalcitrance coming to a head on Valentine's Day when the school ventures out for a picnic.

Deeper, darker, sexier story

Ignoring orders by teachers to stay close, Miranda leads her friends and a teacher away from the group to explore Hanging Rock – where they disappear. Only Edith (Ruby Rees) is seen again, and what happened to the others was always left to the audience's imagination. But now, with some of Australia's hottest new stars leading the way, fresh clues will be added to reveal further intrigue, plus more detail will be divulged on the main characters and the premise will be given what those involved have promised is a "deeper, darker, sexier" lease of life.

"When I first saw the script, I knew it was going to be exciting," shares Madden, who joins the production in her first major role as Marion Quade after breaking through in the Indigenous teenage show Ready for This and the critically acclaimed, Logie Award-winning Redfern Now.

"I loved that while still very true to the original form of the story, how different it was going to be; deeper and darker." Under the guidance of Canadian director Larysa Kondracki, Madden says this outing has been expanded to include much more of what was in the book.

Her own character shows what it was like for a young Indigenous Australian to be thrust into a European world and expected to conform to standards she doesn't understand. It's a new depth the well-known film was unable to explore. "That's why I love working in TV," Madden explains.

"In film, you have an hour-and-a-half or two hours to tell a story; [in Picnic] we have six hours. You have longer to go to much more emotional places with your narrative and your character."

Elements of the supernatural are scattered throughout this reimagining, told in flashback from the moment the girls go missing with what Madden calls "warped visions and dream sequences".

Risqué romance

The implication is that the history of Hanging Rock may have finally caught up with the group. Another story which is now included is an expanded look at the risqué romance that develops between one of the students and her teacher – the similarly-aged Miss Greta McCraw (Anna McGahan).

"The audience becomes privy to their relationship in the aftermath," McGahan previews. "It's something that gets explored as the episodes go on.

"It's still scandalous and it's still wrong, but we've tried to create this element of empathy with them, to go, ‘Why would these women find solace in each other?'"

The plot also includes a closer look at the relationship between the girls, the revelation that two of the men who lead the search for the missing group might be gay and even the discovery of an illicit object at the school.

"I think it's great to cover all the really difficult conversations that Australia needs to have," Weaving says.

"This is different. It's the same characters, but it's more focused on different things.

"And it's really fun, too! I'm making it sound like it's depressing, but it's hilarious, there are so many funny scenes where we just couldn't keep it together."

Weaving ‘having a good run'

Weaving's role as the pampered Irma – "She likes money and jewels and fast carriages," quips the actress – might be one of the last Australian roles she has time for, after stand-out performances in horror film The Babysitter and the drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri saw her elevated to Hollywood's A-list.

The latter was acknowledged on the awards season circuit earlier this year, winning four Golden Globes and two Oscars (Frances McDormand nabbed best actress while Sam Rockwell won best supporting actor), as well as the coveted best acting ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) ceremony. A beaming Weaving took to the stage with the cast to accept the statuette. She's quick to play down the stardom though, saying it all grew from Aussie roots.

"I started in [Australian television series] Out of the Blue when I was 14 years old, then Home and Away, a bunch of Aussie independent films, movies in the US and now this," she says. "I've had a good run."

Also set to use the series as a springboard is Sullivan. Taking on the legendary role of Miranda, the AACTA Award-nominee says her character is more than just a little girl lost in this incarnation, which was a great opportunity for her to explore as an actress.

"The idea that you're playing an Australian icon – everyone remembers the name – was a bit daunting," Sullivan shares. "But then once you're on the job and you're in this creative bubble with the different people bringing this production to life – both in front of and behind the camera – you kind of forget all of that."

Sullivan continues: "Miranda's a dreamer, she is this earthy, wild, free-spirited girl. She grew up on a farm with four brothers where she was treated as an equal, having that taste of freedom – not wearing a corset. Then she gets plucked out, put in this school and is being groomed for auction like the horses that she trained, all because of her gender?

She's the one with true choice because she has tasted both sides and that's where her heroism comes from."

Dormer on Mrs Hester Appleyard

Of course, central to Miranda and the girls' experiences is their principal nemesis, Mrs Hester Appleyard, portrayed by former Game of Thrones star Dormer. Her persona has also been expanded for this offering, with more clues as to who this mysterious woman might be and how an English teacher wound up in the Australian bush in the first place. Her stern manner and what drives her to treat the students the way she does is unravelled.

"In her novel, Joan Lindsay gives hints that there is a past life and that Hester isn't being completely honest about her background," Dormer says.

"The delicious thing that has been done here with our Picnic at Hanging Rock is that we have really fleshed out her morally ambiguous background in London.

"The audience slowly learns more and more; that she is not as she portrays herself to be – this is a lot of fun as an actor." Those questions – who these ladies are and what drives them – is part of what attracted the acclaimed actress to the project in the first place, Dormer says.

"It's a great ensemble piece; so many characters with a lot between them: Where did they come from? What journey are they on? Who are they? What makes them tick? It was wonderful the way this community and school had been fleshed out. And, of course, over-arching this entire thing is this delicious mystery. What happened to those girls? What happened on the Hanging Rock? [It's a] great drama but with mystery holding it all together."

International acclaim

All of which has combined to make the airing of Picnic at Hanging Rock the most anticipated television event of 2018, with local and international audiences eagerly counting down to the premiere.

The offering was selected for this year's Berlin International Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation (only the second Aussie series to be invited; the first being Cleverman in 2016), and is scheduled for broadcast on Amazon in America, Britain's BBC, Sky in New Zealand, Canal+ in France and Deutsche Telekom in Germany, with more international deals to be inked. While everything about this interpretation will be fresh, one thing will remain above all: this is still a riveting tale.

"Absolutely," affirms Madden.

"You don't know what happens to the girls, but we really do set up a lot of possibilities so people can think, 'Did that happen or did this happen?' That's what makes it so fun."

As Weaving states: "It's scary but it's ethereal and feminine. Audiences might be surprised by how modern it is. It's really rock'n'roll and punk, and bad-arse. These girls are rebels."

- Scott Ellis

"Picnic at Hanging Rock" Site. Created by Sandra Gambino. 2005 - 2019
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Music in the Backround "Miranda Morning" composed by Cezary Skubiszewski