PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
There’s never been another
horror movie like this Australian masterwork--actually, it’s like no other film
of any kind. The eerie story of three schoolgirls and an elderly
governess who disappear during an outing at a prehistoric rock formation, Peter
Weir’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is a dreamy, hallucinatory mood piece that exerts
a powerfully disquieting spell. A moneymaker in its day, the film, with its
measured pacing and inconclusive narrative, now plays like art house fare. But
as far as I’m concerned it’s required viewing for horror buffs of any stripe.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK was initially released, to great success, back in
1975 (although it didn’t make it to the US until several years later, after its
director’s subsequent film THE LAST WAVE had already been distributed). It’s
generally credited with putting Australian cinema “on the map” and jump-starting
the career of its talented director Peter Weir, whose second feature it was (THE
CARS THAT ATE PARIS came first, and was followed by the likes of GALLIPOLI,
WITNESS, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, THE TRUMAN SHOW and MASTER AND COMMANDER).
The film was faithfully adapted from a popular 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay
that may or may not have been inspired by a true story that allegedly occurred
back in 1900. The book is written in unadorned documentary style and concludes
with an apparently real (though most likely bogus) summary of the events that
claims to be “From a Melbourne newspaper, dated February 14, 1913”. Much has
been about the true story aspect in the film’s publicity, but that issue was in
question from the start. See Lindsay’s forward to the novel, which states, “Whether
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for
themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and
all the characters that appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems
Now for the bad news: in
1998 Peter Weir decided to create a “Director’s Cut” of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK,
and, in direct contrast to most director’s cuts, actually made the film 8-9
minutes shorter than it was initially, losing a crucial subplot in the
process. This wouldn’t be nearly as annoying to me if this new cut were not the
only available version...but alas, it is. Certainly the film is worth viewing
in any form, but I think viewers deserve a chance to experience it in its
original and (I believe) definitive version.
On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900 a party of schoolgirls from the prestigious
St. Appleyard College embarks on a day-long trip to Hanging Rock, a
million-year-old volcanic rock formation located in the Australian outback.
After an afternoon spent lounging at the base of the rock four of the girls, led
by the angelic Miranda, elect to explore the formation on their own. The girls
climb the rock, finding themselves overcome with a strange turpitude. After a
catnap on one of Hanging Rock’s higher levels they continue the climb, but in
dreamy, trancelike fashion. The dumpy Edith is the only one of the four able to
resist whatever force seems to be guiding the other girls--terrified, Edith runs
back down, on the way passing (she later reports) one of the governesses running
up the rock in her pantaloons.
That night the expedition returns to the school without the three girls or
their governess. An extensive search is instituted by the local police
department, but no trace of any of the missing persons is uncovered. However,
Michael, a young English gentlemen holidaying in the area who caught of glimpse
of the four girls embarking on their fateful climb, undertakes his own
investigation of Hanging Rock. He becomes overcome with a turpitude similar to
that which infected the disappearees, but not before he discovers one of the
missing girls, the feisty brunette Irma, lying unconscious in a crevice. Irma,
who remembers nothing of what happened on the Rock, is immediately taken back to
Appleyard College (lucky her).
The school has fallen into disarray since the disappearances: several
parents have disenrolled their children and the severely repressed headmistress
finds her mental state disintegrating. She cruelly takes out her frustrations
on the orphaned Sara, who was in love with Miranda and now finds it difficult to
cope. The repercussions of the events that occurred on St. Valentine’s Day
continue to effect the lives of all involved: Irma initiates a tentative romance
with her savior Michael (this entire subplot was excised in the director’s cut),
the schoolgirls collectively turn on her, Sara takes her own life and the
headmistress commits a most shocking and unexpected act.
The overall feel of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is best summed up by the Edgar
Allen Poe quote intoned over the opening credits: “All that we see or seem is
but a dream within a dream.” From the start a languid, hallucinatory
atmosphere is established that’s flawlessly sustained. It’s a testament to
Peter Weir’s artistry that he managed to conjure such vivid and hypnotic cinema
from Joan Lindsay’s frankly dull novel--it’s responsible for the lopsided
narrative that, once the picnic of the title is over and the girls have
disappeared, meanders listlessly toward a perversely inconclusive non-ending.
In Weir’s hands, however, none of that really matters.
The work of Weir’s collaborators is uniformly top notch, with Bruce
Smeaton’s peerlessly haunting score and Russel Boyd’s evocative cinematography
being particular stand-outs. Another stand-out is the Hanging Rock itself, a
wondrously strange, ominous formation that ranks with the most striking movie
scenery of all time.
The cast contains many sharp performers, including the
British Rachel Roberts as the monstrous headmistress and the striking Helen
Morse as a sympathetic French governess. But it’s the achingly beautiful
eighteen-year-old Anne Lambert, as Miranda the “Botticelli Angel”, who makes the
greatest impression. Lambert’s screen times amounts to very little (she being
one of the disappearees), but her angelic presence suffuses the entire film.
It’s no surprise that a shot of her face from an early scene has become a
signature image for both the film and modern Australian cinema.
Ultimately PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK demands multiple
viewings to be fully appreciated. What feels at first like a simple exercise in
“macho mysticism” (to borrow a phrase from one unenthusiastic review) gradually
reveals itself to be an unusually complex, multilayered piece of work with an
elaborately constructed soundtrack that juxtaposes sounds of slowed-down
earthquakes and airplane exhaust as part of a masterfully achieved audiovisual
palette. Be advised, though, that the mystery at the film’s center is never
made particularly clear, regardless of how many times one views it.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
Picnic Productions Pty. Ltd.
Director: Peter Weir
Producer: Patricia Lovell
Screenplay: Cliff Green
(Based on a novel by Joan Lindsay)
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Editing: Max Lemon
Cast: Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver, Anne Lambert,
Christine Schuler, Karen Robsen, Frank Gunnell, Jane Vallis, Kirsty Child,
Vivean Gray, Margaret Nelson, Ingrid Mason, Jenny Lovell, Janet Murray, Vivienne
Graves, Wyn Roberts, Kay Taylor, Garry McDonald