Wednesday 12 December 2018

Whether on rocks or in forests, it's girls in peril yet again...

Reviews of Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Forest, Sacred Games, S.W.A.T., Glow, Is the President a Sex Pest?

Different tone: The new TV series of Picnic at Hanging Rock is more in your face than the 1975 art-house film
Different tone: The new TV series of Picnic at Hanging Rock is more in your face than the 1975 art-house film

John Boland

When Peter Weir's movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock, was released in 1975, critics and art-house audiences swooned over its dreamy atmosphere and its enigmatic storyline about a group of Victorian schoolgirls vanishing while on a climbing expedition in the Australian outback.

Personally, I thought it a crashing bore, so languorously paced as to be soporific and at the end offering no resolution to the girls' disappearance, so that the movie just seemed to come to a halt in the middle of nowhere and for no particular reason. Ah well, its defenders protested, it's based on a true story that had no resolution, either.

But it wasn't. It was based on a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, which has now been adapted again for the six-part series that began screening this week on BBC2 and starts on RTÉ1 next week.

I'm not sure how many people got to see the opener given that it clashed with extra time in the England-Croatia match, but those who did would have quickly registered that this was very different from the movie, less hippy-dippy in its tone and more sinister from the outset.

For starters, Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) was a more unsettling headmistress of the posh girls' boarding school, her suave appearance at odds with her much coarser narrative voice and her intentions towards the girls unclear.

The school, too, was a darker and more disturbing institution, with hints already of sadism and masochism and with a greater emphasis on repressed sexuality and on the dangers of a predatory outside world - an attempted assault on one of the girls by a stable hand ending with a pitchfork through his foot.

So this is clearly going to be more in-your-face than the 1975 movie, and presumably with many more of the plot embellishments that are required to sustain a six-episode series.

Anyway, we'll see how it develops - if, indeed, it does develop - and in the meantime let me recommend a Netflix series called The Forest (La Forêt), a six-part French thriller set in the Ardennes. This opens with a teenage girl alone in the woods and looking very fearful, and your initial response is: oh, here we go again, yet another crime series fixated on dreadful things happening to young girls. But it isn't like that here, or at least there's a lot more to it, as a whole rural community comes under scrutiny.

There are various plot strands and various suspects but what's refreshing is how the series commits itself to character rather than sensational cliffhangers, with the murder mystery satisfyingly resolved early in the final episode, thus leaving time for the film-makers to consider the aftermath as experienced by most of the characters.

And a good cast of unfamiliar players helps to make this series an unpublicised little gem.

Also worth a look, and maybe more than a look, Sacred Games (Netflix) is an Indian production that's far removed from our notion of Bollywood as the defining and very stylised image of Indian cinema. For one thing, the violence here is graphically in your face; for another, the tone tends towards the bizarrely surreal.

Saif Ali Khan plays Sikh policeman Sartaj Singh, seemingly the only incorruptible cop in Mumbai as he tries to track down a notorious crime lord, who's taunting him by phone with threats of some dire though unspecified event in 25 days' time.

Flashing between past and present, the first episode left me in some confusion, though there was no denying the fevered atmosphere it conjured up. On the other hand, don't bother with Good Girls (Netflix), which concerns three financially desperate Michigan moms who hold up their neighbourhood convenience store only to discover that they've stolen money that was being laundered by the local Mob.

The problem here is that the makers haven't decided whether they're making a comedy or aiming for a female Breaking Bad, and so it's neither. There are lots of knowing nods to female empowerment, but they're empty gestures. As leader of the trio, Christina Hendricks from Mad Men does her best with the material she's given, but the concept and the script defeat even her obvious talents.

And don't bother your barney with S.W.A.T (Sky One). Set in Los Angeles, this began life as a 1975 crime series so lame it was soon cancelled. Then it was revived for a 2003 movie so bad it could have sunk the careers of Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell. So why on earth resuscitate it again?

Shemar Moore has the required gravitas as the team's young black lieutenant trying to do right by his own local community while enforcing the unit's tough response to crime, but clichéd shoot-outs win the day over any ­sociological or racial concerns. Utterly formulaic.

But the second season of GLOW (Netflix) begins as brightly as the first season ended. You really do want to spend time with these intriguing women and their irascible manager.

To mark his UK visit, the title of BBC1's Panorama programme on Donald Trump was 'Is the President a Sex Pest?' (BBC1), which came with a question mark, though there seemed little doubt what reporter Richard Bilton expected us to conclude.

It was a 30-minute trawl through sleaze as various women recounted stories of being groped or otherwise assaulted and we saw Trump denouncing them as liars ("Believe me, she would not be my first choice") and also heard him boasting of what his celebrity status allowed him to do - not just "grab them by the pussy" but the notion that "deeply troubled women" are "always the best in bed". Ugh.

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