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Savant International Dinner and a Movie Review:

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Criterion 29
1975 / Color / 1:55 flat / 107/115m.
Starring Rachael Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, Anne Lambert, Dominic Guard
Cinematography Russell Boyd
Art Direction David Copping
Costume Design Judith Dorsman
Film Editor Max Lemon
Original Music Jim McElroy
Writing credits Cliff Green from the novel by Joan Lindsay
Produced by Hal McElroy, Jim McElroy
Directed by Peter Weir

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

On Tuesday October 9, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs will present Picnic at Hanging Rock as the second film in their International Dinner and a Movie screening series. This sounds like a bargain - Cuisine by Greg Christian Catering, followed by this great Australian film. This screening will be introduced by critic Ray Pride of Newcity. The full details for those of you in the Chicago area, can be found at this link.


Australia, 1900. A wagonload of private school girls takes a day trip to Hanging Rock, a picnic destination of middling interest. Four of them wander off on their own into the higher elevations of this outcropping, and disappear into the rocks, along with a teacher who follows on her own to retrieve them. Multiple searches turn up nothing. This cripples activity at the school, where students are withdrawn, one of the remaining teachers quits, and the headmistress Appleyard (Rachael Roberts) turns to drink in private. Then two local boys go out, over a week later, to cover search ground already gone over a dozen times.

A major curiosity of a movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the earliest of the Australian pictures of the seventies that made it big in the American market, or at least earned wide distribution. This was, however, several years after it was finished, in 1979, when director Peter Weir was mainly known for his quasi-mystical courtroom drama, The Last Wave. His previous film was The Cars that Ate Paris, an apocalyptic satire that must have been an inspiration for the Mad Max movies, but got shown even less. At what many consider a great time for films in America, when completely abstract and narrative-frustrating titles like The Man Who Fell to Earth were well-received, Picnic at Hanging Rock stirred up a lot of discussion. First, it was beautiful to look at. Second, based ostensibly on a true incident. And thirdly, it generated endless talk about what was supposed to have happened in the story, and what it was all about.

The balance of this review carries spoilers of various hues, and people who haven't seen Picnic at Hanging Rock are advised to act accordingly.

So what happens, and what does it mean? If you're sticking straight to the facts, four females disappeared on this picnic. One was found much later in a condition totally out of keeping with the length of time she was missing. The sequence of events was made unclear by the emotions of the searchers and the inability of the recovered girl to remember anything, except the bizarre detail of why the spinsterish teacher who went up the hill supposedly to retrieve the girls (Miss McCraw, played by Vivean Gray) was seen wearing only her pantaloon underwear, and not the heavy skirts these turn of the century maidens were corseted into.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is from a book, which may or may not be as mysterious as Weir's film, but for the sake of analysis, let's say we only have the film to go by. All of the evidence of what the girls did while out on their own is based on the hardly reliable testimony of a surviving fourth girl (the complaining Edith, played by Christine Schuler). When the soon-to-vanish wordlessly remove their shoes and stockings and hike further into the rocks, they disappear to us as they do to the soon-hysterical survivor. The rest is rumor and illusion, nuance and phantoms. Here's the rundown:

Miranda (Anne Lambert) makes the strange statement to her roomate Sara (Margaret Nelson) that she'll not be around long, which in the context of the film fortells her doom.

The charming French teacher Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) compares Miranda to a 'Botticelli Angel' as she wanders away. In their beautiful costumes, seemingly already abstractions of feminine youth from an innocent age past, Miranda and her friends do seem like objects of abstract beauty, removed from time and reality. Were they 'artistically idealized' to death?

Miss McCraw is shown examining a book of Geometry, but we never see her leave the napping picnic party. We only have Edith's word that she later went up the hill in her knickers.

The two boys are unaccounted for as well. The rich Michael (Dominick Guard) is smitten by the sight of the girls crossing a stream, and follows them. Servant Bernie (Martin Vaughan) is a stout lad with a more base appraisal of the women, and after Michael leaves, we don't know what he's up to. Later on, Michael's delirium doesn't explain the tatter of a girl's dress clutched in his hand, or why her body appears in plain sight a while later, but was absent when Michael was recovered.

Leaving all of these details so vague brings up red-herring ideas that the point of Picnic at Hanging Rock might be that more down-to-Earth explanations for what might have happened have become lost in the clouds of time, unreliable witnesses, and the general denial that evil could in any way be associated with these idealized female creatures. (We see the public of the local town mostly being left out of this private, Police matter.) Enough holes exist to suggest that perhaps one or both of the boys was a rapist - murderer, or a kidnapper. Or perhaps the girls wanted to run away and there was a conspiracy of silence. Perhaps Miss McCraw was secretly involved in something wicked with the girls. Of course, none of these ideas is strongly supported by what we see in the movie. Surely the usual moral transgressions occurred in the Victorian era, but with everyone so incapable of communicating about things as simple as whether the girls were violated, the lack of information is not proof that nothing like this happened (in reality, not in the movie). It's silly to think that Miss McCraw sold the girls into White Slavery, or that Michael and Bernie captured them as sex slaves for a week ... silly, and unfounded, but just as credible as the ideas subtly suggested by the movie.

Given no explanation for events, moviegoers will naturally scrutinize every detail of a film for clues. Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was an education for literal-minded moviegoers, dropping gross hints at every turn to explain its unexplainable events. Peter Weir instead weaves a delicate web of markers pointing to the idea that Hanging Rock is some kind of supernatural entity that has 'claimed' the girls, like a prehistoric God or a nature deity. Weird sounds, echoed dialogue (apparently heard by searcher Michael a week later) abound. What might be taken as carefree behavior on the part of the girls (poetic musings, silent movement, ritual-like actions) can be interpreted as the actions of sacrificial victims to nature, if one needs to. After the Aboriginal/Anglo clash of The Last Wave, most audiences in 1979 figured this was the only possible explanation for it all.

Weir sticks to his theme of facts being essentially 'unknowable', when humans are involved. For those who seek symbols, he constantly compares the girls to swans, and places demon-like lizards on Hanging Rock at crucial moments in the story. His real concentration is with comparing the sensuality being expressed by all of these beautiful virginal creatures, with the mystery itself. They write valentines, quote poetry, have strong passions and yearn for sexuality itself. In their era, sensuality must have been equally as mysterious as the supernatural - a whispered secret that's denied by decent society.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is best when simply showing the depressing aftermath of the disaster: ruin for the school, and haunted reactions from the remaining girls and everyone else around. We're also given another mystery that may be the Key: Sara is apparently the sister of Bernie, both Orphans yet neither aware of each other's proximity. Haunted by the loss, theirs is a drama that never happens, and we only find out about their relationship in passing. It might as well not even exist. Sara gets herself 'denied' out of existence by the headmistress Mrs. Appleyard as efficiently as the Hanging Rock erased her friends, and the beloved Miranda. She's denied the right to go on the picnic, denied privileges, and finally denied the right to 'be', with an unthinkable return to the hated orphanage. And when Sara disappears, Mrs. Appleyard can't make herself tell the truth, and invents a story instead. We're left thinking how much of this ancient 'factual incident' was similarly invented or altered by its witnesses. As a poetic conceit Picnic at Hanging Rock is a smashing success. As a mystery it's a flop, and as a sly comment on humans facing unpleasant truths, an impressive movie indeed. After this intimate picture of youthful female preoccupations, Peter Weir would move on to examine male youth's fascination with adventure and glory in his impressive Gallipolli.

Picnic at Hanging Rock looks marvellous on DVD, better than the grainy import prints we saw back in the 70's. The picture is slightly letterboxed at 1:55 or so, without 16:9 enhancement, which is a slight disappointment, as it was surely screened as wide as 1:78 in most venues and looks fine at that aspect ratio. The sound is clear, but the removeable English titles are a help when trying to understand a few of the more pronounced examples of Aussie argot. This will make a fine screening night for Chicago's International Dinner and a Movie) show.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Picnic at Hanging Rock rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: September 29, 2001

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