I’ve been thinking about this film for several weeks now, but the conditions never seemed to be propitious. It’s not so much the frame of mind to be in before sitting down to watch this classic film, but rather the state of mind it induces, and which then persists past the end of the film.
Picnic at Hanging Rock was directed by Peter Weir, only his second full-length film. It catapulted him, the film and Australian cinema in general into the international spotlight, and remains Australia’s most popular film ever.
The film is, should you wish to try to pin it down to genre, an historical mystery. It’s based on Joan Lindsey’s 1967 novel, which blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction (the story is not a real-life event). On Valentine’s Day, 1900, the pupil’s of a private school, Mrs Appleyard’s College, go on a Valentine’s Day picnic to Hanging Rock, near Mount Macedon, Victoria. Three girls, and their Maths teacher, go missing. Extensive searching, both organised and private, finds no trace of the missing women, though one is later found, and rescued, though without any memory. The College attracts a negative reputation, and ends up closing. Another girl ends up dying, as does Mrs Appleyard.
That’s all there is in terms of plot. Ms Lindsey originally wrote a chapter ‘solving’ the mystery, albeit in somewhat abstract terms, but was sensibly persuaded against including it in the original novel: twenty years later, it was published separately, but still remains excluded, and rightly so.
But Picnic at Hanging Rock is not about story, though in its depiction of the after-events of the disappearance there is a cold inevitability about what follows. It’s about time, and place, and atmosphere, and in the film’s first half, about a sense, palpable from the opening scenes, of young, pretty girls, opening Valentine’s Day cards and gifts to one another, a pervading, unexpressed sexuality that flows from the screen. Unexpressed, not repressed, I say: though the girls’ natural exuberance for their age is repressed, as would be the case in a school devoted to turning out young ladies (on the picnic, the girls are given permission, in light of how hot the day is, to remove their gloves, but only after passing through the town of Woodend), but their sexuality is completely unconscious.
Anne Lambert plays the leading girl, Miranda, a fair-haired, open-faced, beautiful young woman, a school favourite, and the object of a serious crush by the dark-haired, thin, orphan girl, Sara. Just before she disappears, she is described by Mam’selle as a Botticelli Angel, and Lambert is glowing and beautiful enough to justify her role as the Golden Girl, to suggest someone too ethereal and lovely to live on Earth, a girl who might be snatched by the Gods of old.
Sara (Margaret Nelson) is excluded from the picnic because she is in trouble with Mrs Appleyard. We’re not told of the reasons but later we learn that Sara, an orphan separated for some years now from her brother Bertie, is six months in arrear with her fees, and that her Guardian has not responded to correspondence in all that period, so we assume she was cut because of this financial liability.
Weir recreates the time immaculately – the place itself is naturally unchanged – and there is never a moment when we do not believe it is 1900. Hanging Rock is still, serene, yet somehow foreboding. The Director keeps returning to rock formations that suggest facial features, and to rock towers that are definitely penile-shapes. The heat is soporific, and it is a credit to the actresses that, clad in long, white, high-necked, long-sleeved cambric dresses, over corsets and black stockings, they look cool and only marginally troubled. But no-one moves fast, in fact most of them sit, or lie, elegantly, in recumbent poses. Heads lie in other girls’ laps,tendrils of hair are gently stroked, or flowers drawn across brows.
In the midst of this, Miranda wants to go for a walk with Irma (Karen Robson) and Marion (Jane Vallis). Edith, a dumpy, whiny girl, (Christine Schuler) asks to go with them. Though they have been ordered not to explore the Rock, not even its lower slopes, due to the danger, they make their way through the forest and higher, through rock formations, and passages and level gullies that turn the Rock into a maze (throughout the film, Weir sites shots from inside crevices, or in narrow side-gulleys, showing people pass, creating the sense that someone, or some thing, is watching).
In the forest below, they pass, unaware, before the eyes of young Englishman Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), visiting his Aunt and uncle, whose upper-class and decidedly English world is stultifyingly inert, mentally and physically. Mike is talking to his Uncle’s decidedly working-class Australian valet, Albert Crundell (John Jarratt), himself an orphan, with a kid sister he hasn’t seen in years. There’s a definite homoerotic undertone to their friendship, equally unconscious but based in repression, that parallels the atmosphere created about the girls.
Miranda and Co. climb higher. They are overcome at one level, perhaps by the heat but we have now become absorbed into the film and the sweeping abruptness of it suggests something more than mere physical intensity. Even the awful Edith is affected. They sleep and then, led by Miranda, who is becoming more unworldly by the moment, they all wake up together. The three beautiful girls remove their shoes and stockings (there is a particularly individual close-up shot on one girl, in which the camera pans with the stocking and the accumulating folds as it is drawn down, rather than the bare leg being exposed).
And there is a final moment when Miranda, seeming almost to be in a trance, leads Marion and Irma upwards through another crack in the rock, in which they disappear, leaving Edith to scream and scream in hysteria and run away, and Miranda softly and wonderingly says, “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”
Weir then cuts to the College at night, the overdue return of the carriage, Mrs Appleyard’s stern disapproval, Mam’selle’s disheveled panic, Sara’s silent misery, and the news that, unseen by all, the veteran Maths teacher, Miss McCraw has also disappeared.
The film changes, the sexuality is dissipated. The disappearance is a rock dropped into a still pond: the second half of the pool the ripple, spreading until it reaches the banks.
There is a major manhunt, beating the brush, calling ‘Coo-ee’, dragging ponds. An abo tracker is called in, bloodhounds. Nothing is found. Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) confides in her senior assistant, Miss Lumley, that the College is suffering financially: three girls vanished, three whose parents are withdrawing them, six sets of fees vanished, in addition to the mounting arrears in the case of the Weybourne Girl (Sara).
Mike Fitzhubert becomes obsessed with the missing girls, unable to bear the thought of them being out there. Why does it matter so much to him? Why can’t he put it out of his head, like Albert? He followed them, at first, for a short way, or so he told the Police, though not at first. His obsessions might fit a man who knows more than he lets on, a man affected by guilt, seeking expatiation.
He talks Albert into coming with him for another hunt on the Rock. At day’s end, he insists on staying. Early the next morning he sets out again, hatless. An increasingly desperate Albert finds him, overcome, and brings help in the form of a Doctor. But Mike has a torn scrap of white cambric in his hand, and when Albert retraces the Engishman’s steps, he finds Irma, dehydrated, exposed, but still alive, just.
Irma recuperates at the Fitzhugh estate. Mam’selle rejoices but Mrs Appleyard is contemptuous of her. For only one to be found is a disaster. The College has become international news and this will only further ensure their infamy. She comes to a decision: the Weybourne Girl must go, back to the Orphanage. Sara, who has taken to her bed, and erected a love-shrine to Miranda, says nothing. There follows a series of night shots, entirely still and peaceful, and Sara’s empty bed. In the morning, Mrs Appleyard tells Mam’selle that Sara has left in the early hours, before breakfast: her Guardian, in a hurry, collected her, mrs Appleyard supervised the packing of her bags.
Albert relates to Mike that he has had a dream of his kid sister, a dream full of light in which she came to him, saying she had come along way to visit him but had to go now. She called him Bertie: do I have to add that one up for you? He’s going to head north, look for her.
Term is over, the girls have left. The gardener unlocks the greenhouse. There is broken glass everywhere, and a hole in the roof, through which he can see the turrets of the upper floor. Parting the plants, he finds Sara’s blood-stained body. Running to tell Mrs Appleyard, he finds her at her desk, in full travelling outfit. She simply stares at him.
A voiceover, seemingly as an afterthought, by the Police Sergeant, relates that despite further sporadic searching, no-news found. The body of Mrs Appleyard was found at the base of the rocks: presumably she had been attempting to climb them.
The ripple reaches the banks, and dies out.
Joan Lindsey wrote an explanation. You can read about it in the Wikipedia entry on the novel if you so choose: even knowing that the original author wrote this, I cannot mentally or emotionally attach it to the story. Something happened, something outside our ken, and no answer can ever stand up to the numinous mystery. Some things are better left unexplained, unreduced to the flat and banal and concrete. Without that, we can imagine, and Weir gives us plenty to imagine. Where, and how, did they go? What more did Mike know? It appears that Sara committed suicide, but did she really jump?
Wherever we turn, there are shadows, even under the glare of the sun. Thefilm is slow, measured, careful. There are no fast movements, save for those of animals. Irma cannot remember what happened to her: when she is reintroduced to the girls, before going home to Europe, she is an alien creature, a woman, not a girl, dressed richly. All she causes is hysteria, accusation, horror.
Though there is also conventional music on the sountrack, Weir makes extensive use of the pan-pipes of Romanian musician Gheorge Zhamfir (whose ‘Doina de Jale’ unexpectedly became a no. 4 hit in Britain in 1976, the year after this film) creating a mournful, unearthly atmosphere, as well as silence. People say little, do nothing. They are still, they look, they think and the camera waits for them. It’s like being in a dream.
The version I watched today is the Director’s Cut, part of the 2008 3xDVD Deluxe Edition. it’s approximately eight minutes shorter than the original Theatrical release, which appears on a bonus disc, and which I take to be the version I first saw on TV, somewhere in the Eighties. At some point, I will watch that version, and if I have anything further to say, I’ll append a postscript.
It isn’t in the Film 2018 repertoire, but one of these days, I’ll write something about Weir’s major Hollywood success, Witness. I have a story or two about that film.