Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975; Director’s Cut, 1998)

Director: Peter Weir

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By Roderick Heath

It was easy as a young Australian movie fan to hate Picnic at Hanging Rock, so culturally ubiquitous—quoted in advertising and satirised on television and constantly cited in best-of lists. Thanks to its unassailable status as the internationally successful flagship film of the Aussie New Wave of the 1970s, with its images of white-clad young ladies climbing the phallic reaches of the eponymous outcrop, it was often hard to see the movie for the stills. Picnic at Hanging Rock, at the time of its release, and still today, was a challenge and a contradiction, a deliberate, purposeful inversion of the sweaty, masculine obsessions of Australian’s pop culture of the period and the insistently literal precincts of our national artistic temperament.

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A certain archness was certainly detectable in Peter Weir’s handling of his adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, with Weir’s determination to be ambiguous, moody, and classy so thorough as to risk pretension. In 1998, Weir sparked some amusement by releasing a director’s cut that, departing from the usual result of adding sloppy footage better left on the editing room floor, actually made his film somewhat shorter. This editing considerably strengthens a film that was already an effectively eerie and suggestive piece of work. The wonder of Hanging Rock is that it conjures, without explicating, a firm sense of its thematic imperatives, lurking dark and dangerous like rocks under a placid lake surface. And, indeed, that is exactly what the story is about, the thin, tense membrane that is civilisation stretched over primordial truths and vulnerable, at the slightest violation, to total disruption.

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Hanging Rock splits into three distinct parts. In the first, the girls attending Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies in rural Victoria take a day’s sojourn to Hanging Rock, a volcanic flume more than 500 feet high and a million years old, says their escorting teacher, the mathematics tutor Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) in rapt, almost worshipful terms. Her fellow escort is the French mistress, Mlle. De Poitiers (Helen Morse), and senior amongst their charges are Miranda St. Clare (Anne-Louise Lambert), Marion Quade (Jane Vallis), and Irma Leopold (Karen Robson). Meanwhile, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) remains at the school to deal out correction to Sara Waybourne (Margaret Nelson), an orphan girl who’s utterly besotted with the flaxen-haired, angelic-faced Miranda, a figure of general admiration amongst the girls. At Hanging Rock, the girls and their teachers lounge lazily in the sun, with another luncheon party close at hand, that of Colonel and Mrs. Fitzhubert (Peter Collingwood and Olga Dickie) and their visiting English nephew, Michael (Dominic Guard), who, in spite of his well-bred reserve, enjoys the company of their coarse, but good-natured coachman, Albert Crundall (John Jarrat).

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Miranda, Marion, Irma, and a fourth girl, the chubby, shrill, foolish Edith Horton (Christine Schuler), decide to climb the rock. They pass by Michael and Albert, who desire them in their disparate fashions. As the four girls near the pinnacle of the rock, a strange daze seems to overcome them and draw them on, except for Edith, who freaks out and runs screaming back to the picnic. It soon becomes apparent that Miss McCraw has vanished, too, and Edith reports having seen her marching along the path stripped down to her pantaloons. Police searches turn up nothing.

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In the central third of the film, Michael, haunted by Miranda’s face, convinces a reluctant Albert to help him conduct a new search, and Michael stays alone overnight on the rock. When Albert comes back for him the next day, he finds Michael distraught and disheveled, clutching a piece of a dress that proves to belong to Irma, who’s lying bruised and unconscious a short distance away. She and Michael, having braved the mysterious barriers the rock has thrown up, recover and are briefly, intensely linked by the haunting loss of the others, but Irma cannot remember what happened, and both soon go on their separate journeys back to Europe. In the final third, Mrs. Appleyard, consumed with repressed self-pity and frustration as the events and her staff’s desertion hurt her school’s reputation and income, makes Sara her sacrificial lamb. She resolves to send Sara back to the orphanage when her guardian fails to pay his fees on time. Sara commits suicide by hurling herself from the school roof, an act Mrs. Appleyard soon replicates from the heights of Hanging Rock.

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The drama commences on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a date that’s hardly accidental, as the girls’ burgeoning sexuality intermingles with a moony, romantic longing they express in waking up to their valentine cards imprinted with love poetry. The ranked girls strap each other into their corsets in scenes photographed and acted with an air of naïf Victorian sentimentality over an intense, adolescent, almost asexual variety of romantic longing, whilst portraying the effort required to maintain that image of perfection. Miranda is the purest avatar of this stylised version of femininity, declared to be a “Botticelli angel” by De Poitiers. Lindsay’s positioning of this drama then confirms that not only is her story a metaphor for nature overpowering temporal concepts of innocence, but also signals the death of those idealised Victorian images at the commencement of a rowdier century. The narrative then becomes a metaphor for the shattering of a social idyll, whilst revolving around elements directly out of fairy tales: the girls disappear within the earth as in The Pied Piper myth, whilst Albert’s following Michael’s trail of notepaper evokes Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, and Mrs. Appleyard seems very much like the wicked stepmother of many a Grimm tale.

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Weir defines the women as pinioned into immobility by the social custom. When the picnickers reach the rock, Weir conjures images of the girls and their two teachers sitting in artfully arrayed compositions, sprawled in the heat with doll-like prettiness: they’re not allowed to take their gloves off until they’ve passed through the town, and so intensive is their division from the everyday world that they can’t even approach the Fitzhuberts’ party. The endangered quartet’s embarkation up the rock takes on the air of restless motion, searching with spiritual intensity for some act of realisation: whilst they seem to be drawn on by a force outside themselves, it is nonetheless mobilising. The three “chosen” girls who ignore Edith and proceed on the final march into rock’s crescent have all removed their stockings and shoes (McCray, who mysteriously follows, removes her dress entirely), taking on the look of maidens about to engage in mystic rites: McCray, although seemingly distinct from the girls in age and bearing, is probably also a virgin, and her fascination with scientific signifiers—she’s seen reading a book on geometry—both channels and conceals her intense awareness of the rock’s nature. Later, Irma is found disturbingly lacking her corset, but it’s repeatedly noted that she has remained “intact.”

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Such is the swooning formal mastery of the film’s first half-hour—with its lilting Gheorghe Zamfir panpipe theme, rumbling, eerie sound effects, and peering camera evoking the primal threat inherent in the rock and pregnant with approaching, mysterious calamity—that almost anything that follows can be expected to be rather disappointing. However, the second act is just as compelling, with a compulsive, swashbuckling zest that’s a reminder that Weir would later build similar excitement with aplomb in Gallipoli (1981) and his best film to date, Master and Commander (2003). These, Weir’s finest gifts, contrast the weaker elements of the film, which betray a certain lily-livered refusal to live up to its own generic underpinnings, copying instead the set templates of “art” cinema, pinching the frieze-like visuals of Last Year at Marienbad, the instantly nostalgic, haunting last shot of The 400 Blows (which Weir would recycle again in Gallipoli), and the unresolved, flailing narratives of Antonioni, transposed to an Australian setting. This worked well enough to sell it at Cannes, but it only reproduces rather than subverts the same pattern that Weir’s eye perceives so clearly—the incongruity of the transplanted English proprieties of the school, with its Edwardian architectural pretences, and the lifestyle of its inhabitants in an altogether harsher, less forgiving Australian environment.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock, although free of clear manifestations of violence except in comprehending Sara’s mangled body after her suicide, is still demonstrably a horror film, and it came along when other genre directors were toying with similar levels of narrative ambiguity (see my recent comments on Black Christmas) and also very different manifestations of rampaging irrationality assaulting sunny holidayers in films like Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Spielberg’s Jaws, and Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (a title that might have suited this film just as well). It also accords, in muted and unconventional terms, with the slippery sensuousness of retro-feminine glamour in films like those of Jesus Franco, Harry Kuemel, and Jean Rollin, or, from the trashiest end of the spectrum, Narcisco Serrador’s La Residencia, likewise set in a period girls’ boarding school, and Weir was much-praised for not giving in to some of the tempting exploitative aspects of that sort of film. Hanging Rock’s template is mercilessly mainstream and curiously worshipful of the qualities it contends were exhausted and contradictory: it preserves the sentimental in visual aspic.

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In some ways Weir’s film is also a steampunk variation on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, revolving around similarly ambiguous phenomena that telegraph humanity’s tenuous place in the universe and false veneers of civilisation crumbling before that terrifying truth. Of course, the story can be theoretically explained in literal terms—the girls may have fallen victim to an accident or to an assaulting interloper, but oddly enough, most readings still lead back to the same point. Miranda, Irma, and Marion, in their desire to learn something immutable and venture beyond the limits of their frail civilisation, place themselves in the way of violent natural forces. Weir knowingly pictures the phallic reaches and vaginal portals of the rock: the girls disappear within one such hole, the mouth of which Michael later struggles, in desperate physical effort, to reach. Sara’s crush on Miranda seems more like adolescent hero-worship than genuine, Sapphic desire that would more work more congruously with the themes of love and carnality.

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Problematically, the screenplay and visualisation fall back on some stock figures to invoke the oppositions that riddle its structure. Mrs. Appleyard’s stony, self-destructive use of Sara as cannon fodder in her war to keep the school afloat anticipates the more literal concept of Britain using Australian soldiers in Gallipoli. Edith’s plump, whiny irritation far too obviously offsets the other girls’ blooming, beatific perfection as an image of vulgarity leeching off beauty: if the film was true to its pagan proclivities, rather than honouring Victorian sentimentalism, Edith would look like the more appropriate earth mother avatar. Edward and Albert likewise contrast each other a little too neatly in versions of masculinity: Edward, stiff and very English but also proper and brave like a knight of romantic fiction, and Albert the drawling, realistic, honest Aussie to the marrow. Tellingly, Albert and Sara are actually brother and sister, having both been brought up in the orphanage together but separated: their alienation from each other actualises the enforced, unnatural distance between women and men that is the story’s motif. Irma seems to be given up by the rock for not being blonde, as a consolation prize for Michael’s ardent bravery. The film extends the obviousness of the Miranda/Edith split by similarly leaving De Poitiers to contrast with the remaining teacher in the school, Miss Lumley (Kirstey Child), similarly dumpy and shrill, who hysterically hides behind her piano when the girls mob Irma in frustrated outrage when she comes for a farewell visit, and straps Sara to the wall to cure her poor posture; the admirable De Poitiers, beautiful and refined, ends Irma’s abuse, slaps Edith in the face, and releases Sara.

Of course, the story is less about trying to define the indefinable than studying the repercussions of manifestations of the immutable upon the fragility of the genteel world, which, once disturbed, like the surface tension of water, disintegrates entirely. The crumbling façade of Appleyard’s world can only end in her death and the annihilation of all that seemed so solid at the outset. Weir’s trimmed-down director’s cut greatly improves the film’s final section in this regard: where there seemed to a half-hearted suggestion of romantic longing between Michael and Irma in the original version, the cleaner narrative line bears out the crack-up of the social pretences as the keynote to the conclusion: Michael remains haunted by Miranda (the repetition of the initial M which joins Michael, Miranda, Marion and McQuade is probably not coincidental) as a vision of paradise lost, whilst Albert is visited by a dream of his sister saying farewell to him at what is revealed to be the same time that she killed herself.

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Weir’s maintenance of mood, for all the film’s fragile aspects, was always admirable, and he all the more efficiently suggests the fantastic by providing a rich level of tactile detail in setting, casting, and costuming, such as the hint of the slovenly that dogs the ineffectual local police sergeant Bumpher (Wyn Roberts) contrasting the fastidious perfection of Appleyard’s pompadour. Indeed, perhaps the single strongest quality of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and one that was picked up by later variations like Weir’s own The Last Wave (1977) and Colin Eggleston’s cult film Long Weekend (1978), is that it successfully defined the latent unease that has always rested beneath Australians and their sense of their own nation’s landscape and the world in general, that is, a catastrophic sense of nature and paranoia about a continent that promised so much bounty and proved to be little more than a great desert with relatively small regions of fecund earth. Weir’s vision of the landscape rejects the iconic admiration John Ford might have brought to it. Where the initial paranoia of Europeans to enter America’s forests, well-defined and remembered in works like Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, diffused eventually, Picnic at Hanging Rock describes the raw anxiety Australia’s landscape and rugged history of conquest by economic slaves and decimated indigenous peoples as having never entirely faded.

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Hanging Rock is also uncommonly well-acted for an Australian film of the period, something which confirms Weir’s sheer professionalism as being more advanced than any rivals on the scene, save for Bruce Beresford, rather than his artistry, which was to prove readily applicable to Hollywood filmmaking. The film also established Weir’s regular collaborator, DP Russell Boyd, as the second god of Australian cinematographers (after Robert Krasker and before Christopher Doyle). The admirable turns range from the perfect, melancholy radiance of Lambert as Miranda, always the singular image of the film in spite of her unremarkable subsequent career, to the cast-iron intensity of Roberts and the pathos of Nelson as Sara. Guard, as Michael, is supposed to be bland, which is good because that’s all he is, but Jarrat, a familiar figure of Aussie screen and television, is great as Albert. Thirty-five years on, Picnic at Hanging Rock remains intriguing, inspiring, disconcerting, and ultimately, frustrating. l

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 10:00 pm

    Yep, I agree it’s frustrating, but it’s an extraordinarily beautiful film, probably th egreatest Australian film ever, trumping Schepisis’s THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH, the aforementioned GALLIPPOLI, 1995′s BABE and BREAKER MORANT.
    “Of course, the story is less about trying to define the indefinable than studying the repercussions of manifestations of the immutable upon the fragility of the genteel world, which, once disturbed, like the surface tension of placid water, disintegrates entirely.”
    Excellent point, but I don’t need to tell you that. This is a film of mood, atmosphere and those small details, that in spite of its almost inexplicable difficulties, comes off as a persuasively sumptuous work of art.

  • Rod spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 10:32 pm

    Effusive enthusiasm just doesn’t come to me easily with this film, for I admire it more theoretically than with outright enjoyment. I’ve explained my doubts and hesitations as best as I can. Physical beauty can be a questionable virtue and when a film goes to such lengths to be beautiful, especially given the rather obvious deployment of stereotypes, it can certainly take on the quality of a concealing, rather than purposeful, lacquer. It is however undeniable how much simple creative confidence it wields: unlike so many Australian films, faults and all, it is a fully realised and conceptually daring work.

  • Troy Olson spoke:
    11th/01/2010 to 3:33 am

    A singularly fantastic look at this film, Roderick. It’s interesting to get a view of this film from a distinctly Australian viewpoint, as it sheds a bit of light onto how it defined the Australian film industry for years to come.
    Your frustrations with the film seem adequate to me. It’s not a perfect film, but still is one that evokes so much atmosphere to make it intriguing every time I watch. There’s something about the mysterious disappearance and its connection with the unknown part of nature that creates such an odd feeling of dread and fear. It’s a fascinating emotion that Weir is able to evoke (and he does so equally well in THE LAST WAVE)

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/01/2010 to 5:19 am

    Glad you got into this, Troy. I certainly agree that the sense of dread it conjures is quite rare, even unrivalled. I admire The Last Wave considerably, perhaps slightly more than this film, because it sustains its sense of mystery right until the end, even if it’s Von Daniken-derived new age nonsense.
    I recall a TV comedy show from the early ’80s that was sending up Australian films that proposed a funny solution to the film’s mystery, with a sketch that proposed a new “Mad Max” film that had Max and his enemies tearing about on ride-on lawnmowers, at one point ploughing into and shredding a group of schoolgirls dancing under a literally hanging rock.

  • The Siren spoke:
    11th/01/2010 to 9:14 am

    Great analysis of this film, which I loved as an adolescent and still do. I would love to know why Lambert went nowhere afterward; she was uncommonly beautiful and did a good job with Miranda.

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/01/2010 to 9:58 am

    Hi, Siren/Farran. Yes, Lambert actually impressed me in this viewing – I got the feeling playing that part as effectively as she does is actually harder than it looks. According to the IMDb, she spent some time in England, and played Lucrezia Borgia in a well-regarded but apparently little-seen BBC series about that clan, and then got cast as Irulan in Lynch’s Dune but was replaced in favour of Virginia Madsen. She still acts and was in my favourite Aussie film of recent years, Somersault, but yes, her career didn’t come to much. I dare say her image here was so indelible as pigeonhole her.

  • J.D. spoke:
    12th/01/2010 to 12:40 pm

    Excellent review! I really enjoy this film a lot and look at it more as a mood piece a la David Lynch. May not always make logical sense but it kinda follows its own dream logic. There is something genuinely unsettling about the mood and atmosphere of this film. A general feeling of unease that is hard for me to put my finger on but which is why I see PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK as a horror film.
    I also love the ambiguous nature of the film, leaving it open to debate. What happened to the girls? Were they kidnapped? Killed by aborigines? Something more supernatural? One never knows but you can fun watching it over and over trying to solve the cinematic riddles that it presents.

  • Rod spoke:
    12th/01/2010 to 7:29 pm

    Yeah fortunately there weren’t too many roving bands of murderous Aboriginals getting about in rural Victoria in 1900…like none, really. Of course, that doesn’t mean it was such a safe place at the time. Only twenty years had elapsed since Ned Kelly’s capture more or less ended the era of the bushrangers.

  • Rodrigo spoke:
    17th/02/2012 to 2:37 pm

    hello to everyone. does anyone know what the actress Margaret Nelson (sara-waybourne picnic at hanging rock) is doing these days?

  • Roderick spoke:
    17th/02/2012 to 7:02 pm

    Sadly, no, Rodrigo, and judging by a net search, neither does anyone else, except Margaret herself, wherever she is.

  • Rodrigo spoke:
    3rd/07/2012 to 7:28 pm

    Thanks. ”,

  • John L spoke:
    27th/11/2013 to 11:49 pm

    I am the husband of the late Christine Schuler (Edith).
    I can tell you that Chris asked after “Sara” when she was interviewed for the DVD release and was told she wanted absolutely nothing to do with it and has moved on with her life.
    Incidently, the TV Comedy mentioned above, was one of the D Generation/Fast Forward offerings. Magda Szubanski, playing my wife’s character ‘Edith” was accused by Marg Downey, playing one of the teachers of Eating the missing girls. Chtis laughed so hard ………………………So funny. I bet Joan Lindsay never thought of that ending!

    Sadly Chris collapsed and died of heart faliure 19/09/2010.

  • Patrick Pilkey spoke:
    23rd/02/2014 to 12:52 pm

    I found this film to be fantastically wild in its cynicism of beauty and its daring outlandishness. I enjoyed this film very much and found the review to be even more inviting. I believe what made this film so odd was the relation of the women in the white clothes and idealized garb compared to the landscape. Normally beauty can be easily construed and misplaced when heavily included in a film but here it seems appropriately odd. The location seemed to be a “non space” or an unescapable purgatory of sorts which made the characters seem all the more lost in their endeavors. This relation of character and location is what struck me as the most poignant aspect of the film for me. Overall I found it to be interesting and very evocative of the strange and uncanny in a unique way. For it’s time and country of origin it is a very specialized and individual film for the time; succeeding in all efforts to evoke a unplaced and unnamed emotion throughout.

  • Carol Trainor spoke:
    30th/06/2014 to 8:55 pm

    Did anyone hear of Joan Lindsay’s final chapter 18 published in the 1980s? It was “The Secret of Hanging Rock” and gave the resolution of what happened. Apparently, her publisher initially excised chapter 18 because he believed the novel would be better without it. Lindsay agreed , and stipulated that it would only be published after her death and so it was (Australian newspapers verified this). The gist: The two girls crawled into a “hole” and a boulder came crashing down over them (Irma was never able to enter the hole). Upon the novel’s publication, Lindsay incorporated elements of chapter 18 into chapter 3. Take a look at it online.

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