Picnic at Hanging Rock
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
Director: Peter Weir
Production: South Australian Film Corporation and the Australian Film Commission; 35 mm; running time: 115 minutes. Filmed on location at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia.
Producers: James McElroy and Hal McElroy; screenplay: Cliff Green, based on the novel Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay; photography: Russell Boyd; editor: Max Lemon; art director: David Copping; music: Bruce Smeaton; costume designer: Judy Dorsman.
Cast: Rachel Roberts (Mrs. Appleyard); Dominic Guard (Michael Fitzhubert); Helen Morse (Dianne de Poitiers); Jacki Weaver (Minnie); Vivean Gray (Miss MacCraw); Kirsty Child (Dora Lumley); Annie Lambert (Miranda); Karen Robinson (Irma); John Jarratt (Albert); Margaret Nelsonn (Sara).
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At a time when New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote were experimenting with true stories told through fictional techniques, Australian director Peter Weir was conducting his own exploration of filmic New Journalism with Picnic at Hanging Rock. As with the works of the American writers, the basic elements of the Australian story are apparently historical facts; what the artist brings are fleshed-out characters, plot, dialogue, and the texture of actors and mise-en-scene. As a result, Picnic is far from documentary, but rather a rich, almost literary meditation on a mystery unresolved by conventional investigation and the passage of time. Weir's great daring in this film was to accept the tenets of the New Journalism's approach and to allow the story to end as it happened, unresolved by a neat fictional package that might satisfy critics and audiences accustomed to artistic closure. In a victory for sophistication, this courageous rejection of convention resulted in Picnic being considered the best film ever made in Australia up to that time and the most successful internationally.
Picnic's factual base concerns the disappearance of three girls (one eventually rediscovered) and a teacher on a school picnic at a popular Australian location for outings in 1900. The students at Appleyard College in the state of Victoria are proper Edwardian young women, being "finished" to take their place in Australian society. Initially, the school and its charges look more like an earlier Victorian ideal of British correctness, rather than a school in the provinces of a colony struggling to escape the English class system. In fact, we soon learn that class conflict is alive and well, with a student who is an orphan treated as a poor relative. It is sexual repression, however, that is most marked and potentially explanatory as a cause of later events. The girls are literally strait-laced: an amusing shot shows a back-to-front lineup, each pulling on the stays of the next in line. Though February 14 is in the midst of the summer season, the girls are dressed more appropriately for a cool British July, and are told they may, as a great treat, remove their white gloves because of the heat.
As the party nears Hanging Rock—a weird up-thrust of stone sacred to the Aborigines—concern about its dangers mounts. Venomous snakes are mentioned repeatedly, and the science teacher, Miss MacCraw, muses darkly on the Rock's geological origin, its lava "forced up from deep down below," perhaps suggesting the suppressed emotions in this controlled society. At the picnic grounds the mood changes from girlish excitement to a languid, hot-summer-afternoon sensuality. The girls remove their sun hats and four receive permission to climb, ostensibly to find geological samples. The luminous, other-worldly Miranda, who has had a premonition of "not being here much longer," hikes upward, accompanied by the dumpy complainer, Edith, and two others. Part way up the rock the girls remove their shoes and stockings after falling asleep as if in unison. The mood is mystical, pregnant with possibility. Edith complains that the walk is "nasty," and, growing steadily more fearful, turns back, seeing a "red cloud" and then passing Miss MacCraw on her way up, looking "funny" since the teacher wears no skirt, only "pantaloons" or "drawers." George Zamphir's pan flute plays a haunting motif in the background, flocks of birds fly portentously, and the hiking girls are shot in slow motion in lazy, dance-like sequences.
Mountains violate our sense of human scale: the girls, and Weir's camera, look upward and we see nothing as familiar or as manageable as the Victorian furnishings of the school. As Miss MacCraw points out in an amusing correction of the buggy driver, Hanging Rock's time scale is inhuman as well, not "thousands of years old," but "quite young geologically speaking, a million years old." Appleyard College's hothouse environment has been shattered, and new, magical reality is in operation. Everyone's watch stops at twelve noon; heavenly choir and piano music accompany sweeping camera shots of flocks of birds rising. Unfamiliar fauna intrudes, including cicadas, with their weird drumming call, and strange lizards. Rumbling, thunder-like noises roll down from Hanging Rock, but there is no storm, only (apparently) the wind playing through peaks and caves. A spoken prologue has told us that "What we see and what we seem, Are but a dream—a dream within a dream." This reverie is no nightmare but more like what happens during a day-time sleep on a hot day: a disturbing displacement of our conventional perceptions.
This is country Weir explored in his excellent The Last Wave: Western rationalism encounters the fluid, intuitive Weltanschauung of aboriginal Australia, an ancient mystical land full of spooky threat and indifference to European scientific certainties. There are also repeated references to Shakespearean characters and trees: the angelic Miranda, yearning upward, contrasted to chubby, "earthbound Edith" four young people disappearing into a forest inhabited by unseen sensual forces; "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day" recited by some of the girls at the picnic. While Weir is not insistent about it, the suggestion is that the disappearance of the girls is motivated by repressed sexuality, with their dream-like state an escape into another reality.
The balance of the film explores the reactions to and the consequences of the disappearances. One of the girls, Irma, is found by Michael, a young visitor entranced by Miranda at the picnic; Irma is sexually "intact," as the doctor delicately puts it, although her corset is missing and she seems different, perhaps older. Irma is shunned and then abused by her fellow students when she is unable—or perhaps unwilling—to say what happened. Gardners discuss whether the girls could have fallen down a hole or whether a Jack the Ripper has struck. Parents withdraw their children; a lonely student commits suicide, leaping into a greenhouse; the picnic grounds become a media circus; the headmistress descends into alcoholism. The window into another reality has been opened, and nothing can be the same.
Weir's refusal to provide a neat explanation has a variety of artistic consequences. Besides being true to the historical record, the film has the complex resonances of real life, resonances which would be completely absent in the presence of a rational explanation. The thematic point is that it is impossible to speak about the unspeakable—in this society that denies the existence of sex, even the consequences of sex have no name (the maids call illegitimately conceived students "you know"). The film, like Weir's Wave and Witness, thus becomes an anthropological commentary on the blindness and limits of culture when confronting events that fail to fit a frame of reference: Picnic may begin with fact, but ends with our most unsettling speculations.
—Andrew and Gina Macdonald
"Picnic at Hanging Rock." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 15, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/picnic-hanging-rock
"Picnic at Hanging Rock." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved October 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/picnic-hanging-rock