Posted in: Film Reviews

“Everything happens at its appointed time” – Picnic at Hanging Rock

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

This is the second feature film from director Peter Weir, the first being the uneven but fitfully brilliant The Cars That Ate Paris in 1973. Though that movie was too scrappy to make Weir seem more than extremely promising, Picnic at Hanging Rock is something else: an absolute beauty, a movie entirely worthy of cult-classic status at the very least, and a major step forward for its director and, as far as I am able to tell from my very limited experience of it, for the Australian cinema.

That so delicate and subtle a movie could be made at all in Australia, a land much associated with crass behaviour and cultural gaucherie, may surprise some. It’s not, after all, a film made there by outsiders, like Walkabout. That so beautiful-looking and technically fastidious a film could emerge from Australia certainly surprised me: all the (few) other indigenous Antipodean movies that I’ve seen, including The Cars That Ate Paris, were very rough-edged, tending towards muddy colour and threshing-machine cutting, the hallmarks of cheapo filmmaking. Picnic at Hanging Rock is gorgeous, richly textured, full of pellucid colours and images that tremble between tableau and hallucination. It draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

"Picnic at Hanging Rock" draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

It draws us, in fact, the way that Hanging Rock, the “geological miracle” that is literally as well as figuratively at the film’s centre, draws its own victims (if that’s the word for them) to … what? where? Once we are into this film, we are also into another world, where we in the audience tread only on the outskirts. Certain of the film’s inhabitants – a trio of schoolgirls and the most senior of their teachers, all visitors to the rock on the dazzlingly bright St. Valentine’s Day of 1900 – penetrate the very core of this other world. Others stay on the periphery but seem to become more aware of it, more knowing of its secrets, than we ever do. Unarguably, no one in the film who comes into contact with Hanging Rock is unchanged by it – not the fat girl who can’t keep up with her three friends and so returns to the rest of the party, at the Rock’s base, screaming and bleeding without knowing why; not the French assistante who muses that the leader of the Rock-climbing expedition has “the face of a Botticelli angel” immediately before losing sight of her forever; not the young Englishman who ventures onto the Rock in search of the missing and himself faces the unacknowledgeable. (He, incidentally, is played by Dominic Guard, the go-between of The Go-Between, now on the brink of adulthood and as baffled here by children as he was in the earlier film by adults.)

Just one of the three girls is found; the others, like the teacher, remain missing without trace or explanation. The found girl, Irma, recovers her health (her condition stymies the medical examiner) but not her memory. Whilst convalescing, she peruses an annual called The Rosebud Album, a stray hint that this cinematic labyrinth, too, will have no centre. She cannot or will not say what happened, and even those few who stayed behind at the school during the picnic come under the geological miracle’s spell. Most of all, the school’s headmistress, virago widow Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts in a dazzlingly suggestive performance), seems, like the most unlucky of all her pupils, Sara (Margaret Nelson), in some sort of telepathic communication with the Rock. Sara is an orphan whose guardian has repeatedly failed to pay the school’s fees. Excluded therefore from activities like the picnic, she is traumatically separated from her new focus of spiritual kinship, her room-mate Miranda (Anne Lambert). Miranda, the Botticelli angel, had even warned her that “I might not be around much longer” before leaving, and had been fingering Tarot cards before that. Was Miranda (appropriate Shakespearian name) also in communication with the Rock, in advance of the others? Did she lead her friends into the recesses and secret places on purpose? Sara’s infatuated dependence on her roommate is but one instance of the film’s manifold examples of sexual repression. Does the Rock signify freedom, a liberation of both libido and soul?

Surely, the characters are in need of liberating. The prim young Englishman, Michael, feels constricted by his ancient uncle and aunt. The missing teacher, Miss McCraw, sits stiffly in the outback sun studying a geometry textbook immediately prior to disappearing (though she did make an earlier, impeccably scientific account of volcanic upheaval sound downright voluptuous). Another teacher, Miss Lumley (Kirsty Child), cringingly awaits the dominance of Mrs. Appleyard, who in turn secretly guzzles whisky from her water pitcher and mourns her “completely and utterly dependable” husband. Amongst the girls, Sara pines for her brother Albert, never knowing what we learn only in the film’s last few minutes – that he is one and the same person as Michael’s rough-spoken but plucky groom (John Jarrat), the one who actually finds the missing Irma.

"Picnic at Hanging Rock"
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" - the landscape of a dream

But the Rock cannot be so conveniently tagged as a symbol of escape for those in need of it. Why is it so frightening to all who visit it? Why do two girls escape its power and what causes their many cuts and bruises, or the quality of sheer horror that informs their mutual amnesia? And why does it cause such destruction in the community at large? The school is ruined. Parents withdraw their children; others refuse to pay their bills. Members of the staff abruptly resign. In the village, unrest stirs amongst the populace. The local policeman begins to lose his authority. Michael decides to leave Australia, and suffers mysterious hallucinations, both of Miranda and of the swan which is constantly associated with her in the film’s imagery (even though he never actually sees the little glass model of a swan by her abandoned bedside). Mrs. Appleyard’s drinking becomes more open. Cruelly, she expels Sara from the school, and informs Mlle. de Portiers (Helen Morse), the assistante, that the girl has left forthwith. But then Sara’s dead body is found in the school greenhouse, and when the gardener rushes to tell Mrs. Appleyard, he finds her already waiting in funereal black, veiled and smiling a truly ghastly smile. As the screen fades to black, a voice informs us that her dead body, in turn, was found on March 27 – at the foot of Hanging Rock.

There are no explanations, only hints, fragments, omens. Heat and mist enfold the protagonists in the landscape of a dream, entrap them inside an incomprehensible destiny. “Everything,” says Miranda, shortly before vanishing, “happens at its appointed time”; and this is indeed the sense one gets from Peter Weir’s film. It is perhaps a shade too long; a brief subplot involving a school kitchenmaid and her brawny lover is thematically necessary (sexually fulfilled, though without imagination, they are the only ones untouched by the Rock’s influence) but a bit drawn-out and disappointingly prosaic after the splendours of Weir’s mise-en-scene elsewhere. But this is nit-picking. Picnic At Hanging Rock grips one like a vise, and is full of superb epiphanies: the thunderbolt moment when Michael, after searching the Rock alone, recovers from subsequent catatonia  just long enough to thrust a piece of torn lace, from a girl’s dress, into Albert’s hand; the sudden, nervous volte-face when timorous Miss Lumley hands in her notice; the visit of the apparently recovered Irma, clad all in red, to the school gym, where her friends greet her first with hostile silence and then with a barrage of questions about what really happened, giving way to uncontrollable mass hysteria in the process. It’s not going too far to suggest that, in Peter Weir, the cinema has a new poetic master in embryo.

© 1979 Pierre Greenfield

Direction: Peter Weir. Screenplay: Cliff Green, after the novel by Joan Lindsay. Cinematography: Russell Boyd; camera operator: John Seale (uncredited). Art direction: David Copping. Editing: Max Lemon. Music: Gheorghe Zamphir.
The players: Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, Anne Lambert, Vivean Gray, Kristy Guild, Margaret Nelson, John Jarrat, Karen Robson, Christine Schuler, June Vallis, Wyn Roberts, Martin Vaughan.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.