Starring: Anne-Louise Lambert, Karen Robson, Margaret Nelson, Rachel Roberts, Helen Morse, John Jarrett, Jacki Weaver
Director: Peter Weir
At an upper class girls school in 1900, the young students head out for a Valentine’s Day picnic near the local geological landmark Hanging Rock, and are warned not to get too close to the rock. Mysteriously, four of the girls and one teacher go missing while everyone is asleep, as they head up to the rock. The loss of the girls unravels everyone around them. A young man who saw the girls crossing a creek becomes obsessed with them, the school starts to lose it’s students which drives the head mistress to drink, and the students left behind are left bereft and sometimes hysterical. One student is found after a week, but remembers nothing, heightening the mystery, though there are no easy answers.
In the 70’s and early 80’s there was a New Wave of films in Australia that explored themes of identity and what it means to live in that country. Australia has always had a film industry and in fact the first feature film was Australian and shown in that country, but due to things like block booking and the studio system, the industry struggled for a while. There was a sense that Australian culture was British and that the best films came from America, but with the rise of Independent films in the 70’s, Australian film makers were able to explore cultural narratives, and in fact were encouraged by government funding and tax relief to make distinctly Australian films. The “cultural cringe” of the last few decades was cast aside, and some of these notions were explored and stories with Australian archetypes were made. Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of the most well known films of this era, and a bit of a poster child for it, in some ways.
Re-watching this film, I always get something different out of it. This time two of the girls and their relationship stood out to me. Miranda (Lambert) is considered to be very beautiful and sophisticated, admired by all the girls at the school. She’s sort of their centre and has a dreamlike, virginal quality. Her closest friend is Sara (Nelson) who adores her and writes her love notes and reads her poems. Sara is almost Miranda’s opposite, and I love her story. She’s kept back from the picnic because her guardian owes the school money. She becomes the butt of the teachers irritation over the course of the film, and we learn that she came from a cruel life in a orphanage. Unlike golden Miranda with her bright future and comfortable back ground and secure future, Sara is a more plain brunette, with no prospects. In losing Miranda she loses the person who she cares about the most and who is everything she can’t be, as well her first love, and is given to understand that she will be returned soon to the orphanage due to her fees not being paid. She is certainly a tragic figure.
One of the key components of this film is the landscape. In Australian films, and particularly ones of this era, the land itself is like a character in the plot. Here, the Hanging Rock or the wild, uncultivated area around it, seems to call to the girls as though alive and they willingly go to it. It also manages to swallow them up, without a trace, so in essence it is the antoagonist of the film. This sense of the land being conscious and unfriendly in some way, as well as being shot in wide shots that linger lovingly over the dry empty lines, is a common theme. It speaks to the way that the settlers carved out their lives in the land and the hardness of the place, it’s refusal to bring rain, it’s unforgiving nature. It’s something that is probably felt and understood instinctively by the Australian viewer and not as much by other audiences.
This film has a Virgin Suicide type of feel to it, and this film seems to have been an influence on Sofia Coppola. It has a haunting and unusual soundtrack that stays with you after you watch it. It’s dreamlike, lingering over moments and the girls faces, and yet there’s also a sense of yearning, romance, repressed sexuality and barely controlled hysteria. The landscape is lovingly shot and the sounds of Australian birds are heard. The film sets up it’s story in such a way (drawing from the way it’s source novel did the same) that you feel you are watching something that really happened, and how it effected those left behind, and some people still think that it’s based on a true story, which is isn’t. Perhaps this is partly down to the way that the film draws us in but never really answers anything. It gives you just enough to keep you thinking after the credits roll. It’s a wonderful film and I think it not only gives you something different each time you watch it, but also has a dreamlike, otherworldly quality that is just so beautiful.
See It If: you love mysterious stories, historical films, …it’s a really beautiful and haunting film, and comes highly recommended.