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.
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.
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). 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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. 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 and also very different manifestations of rampaging irrationality assaulting sunny holidayers, in films like Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977; 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. 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. In some ways Weir’s film is also a 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. 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.
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.
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. Decades later, Picnic at Hanging Rock remains intriguing, inspiring, disconcerting, and ultimately, frustrating.