Released in 1975, this film has the twofold distinction of being the first Australian movie widely distributed to international audiences as well as being acclaimed director Peter Weir’s only second feature film. Set in an all-girl boarding school in South Australia, it’s difficult to place Picnic at Hanging Rock in any genre as it defies categorization; part mystery, part supernatural gothic and part visual poem to lost innocence, the film does not have a coherent plot. In fact, it’s strength lies in its beautiful cinematography and unsettling sense of vague menace.
On Valentine’s Day in 1900 the students at the all-girl boarding school Appleyard College go on a picnic at the foot of a volcanic formation known as Hanging Rock, They are warned by the school owner and director, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) not to explore the rocky outcropping and its hidden caves and to be careful with snakes and biting ants. All the girls but one are allowed to go; Sara (Margaret Nelson) who is an orphan behind on her tuition.
To be clear, Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a lesbian movie, however it is dense with a good share of lesbian subtext as recognized by both critics and viewers alike. The film opens with the soundtrack of Zamfir’s pan-pipes as we see the girls grooming each other, reading poetry and giving Valentine’s cards to one another, Miranda (Anne Lambert), a Boticelli beauty, is quoting a poem by Edgar Allan Poe and advising Sara that she will soon leave and Sara should find someone else to love. It’s evident that Sara is in love with Miranda and Miranda’s “farewell” words are a portent of what is to come.
Shot in soft focus and hazy, gauzy camera effects, we observe the restrained, corseted Victorian schoolgirls and their teachers as they interact with nature; a mysterious, “alien” nature to these girls and to the English civilization being imposed on it.
Four of the girls, Miranda, Marion, Irma and Edith decide to explore the base of the rock with the permission of one of their teachers. However, as the girls scale the rock higher and higher, they also begin to discard layers of clothing until they’re barefoot and without their corsets. Except frumpy, chubby Edith who’s had enough and wants to turn back. She calls after her schoolmates as they continue their ascent in what appears to be a hypnotic trance. They will never be seen again. The picnic party returns late to Appleyard College with the girls and remaining one teacher naturally upset. Not only are there three girls missing but also Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) has also disappeared; last seen by Edith as she too was scaling Hanging Rock in her underwear. It’s never said but as the film progressed I got the impression that perhaps there was more than a professional relationship between Miss McCraw and Mrs. Appleyard. Miss Deportiers (Helen Morse) and Edith explain what happened to Mrs. Appleyard and to the police who launch a search party along with the help of locals.
As the days pass with no clues or appearance of the missing party, hysteria descends upon the school as parents inform Mrs. Appleyard that their daughters will not be returning to the school next term. Mrs. Appleyard who was a sourpuss to begin with takes to the bottle and takes her frustrations out on Sara.
A newly transplanted young Englishman, Michael and his valet, Albert who were lazing about in the vicinity with Michael’s family the day of the disappearance are both questioned by police. Both the viewers and the towns are frustrated not knowing what really has become of these women. Were they abducted and sexually assaulted? Was it something pagan, supernatural? Where did they go? The speculations are ripe. Director Peter Weir deliberately leaves everything vague, mysterious and unresolved. Michael, the young Englishman becomes obsessed with finding the women and scales the rock himself. When he’s later found bruised, dehydrated and clutching a scrap of lace from one of the girl’s dresses he has no memory of what he saw. Shortly thereafter one of the missing girls is found barely alive but unharmed. When pressed for answers she has no memory of what happened at Hanging Rock nor of the fate of the others.
Before the film is over there will be two deaths; a suicide and a potential suicide or homicide. Based on Joan Lindsay’s novel by the same name, Picnic at Hanging Rock leads the viewer to believe that the story is based on actual events. However, there are no records of such a disappearance in that area in 1900.
I would not recommend this movie to everyone; it’s ending is vague and unresolved with a pace that can try some viewer’s patience. Having said that, Picnic at Hanging Rock has its own visual rewards for those of us who can appreciate its strange beauty.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is available through Amazon.