Picnic at Hanging Rock

Dir: Peter Weir, 1975. Starring: Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, Kirsty Child. Foreign/Mystery.
Picnic at Hanging Rock

What we see and what we seem are but a dream... a dream within a dream.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the first Australian films to break through to an international audience, and it is also one of director Peter Weir's earliest and most important works. Weir would later go on to direct such giants as The Year of Living Dangerously, Dead Poet's Society, and The Truman Show. Picnic at Hanging Rock, mysterious and dream-like, confusing and open-ended, provides a glimpse of this prolific director's early vision.

The film begins with scenes from Appleyard College, an all girls school in a rural part of Australia. It is here that the ethereal realm of Victorian ladies comes to life. French lace, sunlit boudoirs, a row of girls tying their corsets, each scene is treated and framed almost as if it were a painting by Waterhouse or Botticelli, the woodwind driven soundtrack eerily luring the viewer into this delicate world of beauty.

The events of the film take place on Valentine's Day in the year 1900. As a celebration of the holiday, several of the girls are offered to have a field trip by the stern Head Mistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts). The group of girls is taken by three teachers, the intellectual Ms. Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray), the beautiful and kind Mademoiselle de Portiers (Helen Morse), and Miss Lumley (Kristy Child), to have their picnic at the base of a large volcanic rock formation known as Hanging Rock.

The group has a pleasant picnic for a few hours, and after a time a small group of the girls, Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Edith, ask the teachers to explore the rock in order to obtain some rock samples. As the group of girls begins to ascend the rock they seem to become more and more disoriented, eventually having to take a nap. After they awake all but Edith seem as though they are in a trance. They continue ascending into a small cave, despite Edith's pleading. After several dreamlike shots, the camera suddenly cuts to Edith screaming and running away from the rock. When questioned Edith is hysterical and unable to explain or remember what happened.

In a nearby town, the inhabitants become restless and paranoid as the mystery is left unsolved for several days, after several search party attempts. People begin to speculate about what happened to the girls. Rumors and half-clues eventually reach a boiling point, the townsfolk demanding to know what happened, and the school immersed in misery and hysteria.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a very special movie; like Weir's film The Last Wave, the viewer is given few definitive answers to the questions posed in the film. We are given no resolution. What seems like the main plot begins to dissolve as the minute details on the fringe of the main story materialize into the foreground. The viewer is then left to construct their own Meta-plot out of the material provided. And the aforementioned details, again like The Last Wave, are seemingly endless. I'm sure you could find more and more to feed your imagination with every viewing. Indeed, I found myself thinking of some new aspect of the mystery of Hanging Rock with this most current experience; the half woven threads and clues are many.

Some people have a hard time with movies of this nature; if you require a happy Hollywood ending, steer clear! You will surely be short circuited by the impressionistic dreaminess that is Picnic at Hanging Rock. But if you like the idea of getting your mind to work in creative ways whilst being submerged in beautiful shots of the Australian wilderness, Victorian lace, and ethereal ladies, all enveloped by a dark and sinister dementia, then I would say that Picnic at Hanging Rock is a treasure that you should not pass up!

Posted by:
Jonah Rust
Jul 27, 2009 11:33am
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