Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place…”

Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery without a solution.  A horror movie set in broad daylight, a haunted house story set outdoors, with a ghost who’s alive and well at the beginning, goes to her fate willingly, and is never confirmed dead.

Adapted from Joan Lindsay’s novel, a title card at the beginning suggests the film is a true story.  St Valentine’s Day, 1900 at the stuffy Appleyard college near Woodend, Australia.  The girls are preparing for a trip to a local geological formation, Hanging Rock.

The girls innocently send valentine cards professing their love for one another.  Orphan Sara (Margaret Nelson) is smitten with the ethereal Miranda (Ann-Louise Lambert).  Miranda seems to know something Sara doesn’t – “You must learn to love someone else apart from me…I won’t be here much longer.”

Perhaps she’s talking about dropping out of school and getting a job, but the serene look on her face suggests there’s something more mysterious behind the comment.

Accompanied by the spinsterish Miss McGraw (Vivien Gray), and the beautiful young French teacher, Mademoiselle de Poiters (Helen Morse), the group of girls toast St Valentine in the shadow of the looming rock formation.

After their picnic, a group of girls, led by Miranda – Marion (Jane Vallis), Irma (Karen Robson) and Edith (Christine Schuler) – go exploring in the upper slopes of Hanging Rock.  Young local toff Michael (Dominic Guard) and his family’s servant Albert (John Jarratt) see the girls crossing a stream.  Struck by Miranda’s beauty, Michael starts following the girls, but  soon returns.

The girl’s behavior becomes more dream-like and uninhibited the closer they get to the summit of Hanging Rock.  Earlier, the group are given permission to remove their gloves because of the heat once they leave civilization.  Trussed up in corsets and layers of petticoats and long skirts, the explorers shed shoes and stockings, and seem to lay themselves down as willing sacrifice beneath a rather phallic shaped rock.

Awaking, Miranda, Irma and Marion wander away into the upper reaches of the rock, apparently in a trance.  Edith, spooked, screams and starts running.  She passes Miss McGraw on her way down, some distance away, wearing only her underwear.  Miss McGraw is also never seen again.

The rest of the film covers the later hunt for the missing girls, and the impact of their disappearance on the School, their friends and classmates, and the two young men who saw them walking away to oblivion.

A doctor checks Edith, and Irma, who is miraculously discovered a week later by Albert on the rock, and concludes they are both still “Intact” – ie. still virgins.  The only theories speculated by characters in the movie are worldly ones – abduction, rape, murder – and the doctor’s diagnosis allays fear of a human causeof their disappearance.

Picnic at Hanging Rock dangles tantalizing clues in front of the viewer.  Approaching the Rock in their carriage, Miss McGraw informs the girls that the Rock’s approximate age, a million years, is relatively young.  “Waiting a million years, just for us.” Irma wistfully imagines.

After lunch, both carriage driver and Miss McGraw discover their watches have stopped at midday.  Miss McGraw dismisses it as magnetic disturbance.

The soundtrack is full of rumblings and peculiar sounds, suggesting the rock is a living entity awakening, ready to spirit the girls away.  Shots of strange  formations invite the viewer to imagine faces in the rock.

As the girls gain on the summit, they become more and more dazed, to the point where they don’t even recognize their own school friends from above.  Are they hypnotized or drugged in some way?

Another common theory is UFO abduction.  At one point, Miranda tells Edith: “Look! Not down at the ground, way up in the sky.” Later, when Edith is back at school in her bed, she reports seeing a mysterious red cloud over the rock.  The UFO theory neatly explains Irma’s survival for a week in the bush with only a few cuts and scratches.

Mlle de Poitiers compares Miranda to a Botticelli angel, and Miranda certainly seems otherwordly.  She seems to know something will happen that day, and although it is Marion’s suggestion to go exploring, it is Miranda who leads the others to their fate.

Even after the disappearance, Miranda haunts the movie.  Michael cannot get her out of his mind, and imagines seeing her.  Her piercing gaze from her portrait peers out of many scenes at the college.  Perhaps she was from somewhere else, and took the other girls away with her?

Picnic at Hanging Rock is fraught with the sexual repression, mostly from the Victorian colonists.  They are incongruous against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness in their top hats, waistcoats and tails, and the gradual defrocking of the girls as they wander deeper into the rock suggests liberation and discovery of their budding sexuality.

The Australians are far more open about sex – employees of the college are happy with a quick bunk up, and Albert is open about imagining what is underneath the girl’s prim outfits.

Michael associates the girls with a swan, and the colour scheme matches – white outer plumage and black legs and feet.  The association reflects a buttoned up, Victorian squeamishness about sex.

He admires the beauty of what is visible, but is uneasy about what’s going on beneath the surface.  As he and Albert watch the girls crossing the stream, he scolds the earthy Aussie for saying crude things.  “I say crude things, you just think them.” Albert responds.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a haunting and exquisitely beautiful film, maddening because of its lack of conclusion.  Like all the best myths and legends, it captures the imagination so fiercely because there is no solution – it is left entirely up to the viewer.  As one gentleman wisely puts it: “There’s some questions got answers, and some haven’t.”

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 05/08/2012, in Drama, Entertainment, Film, Horror, Movies, P, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I love this film, thanks for the reminder, brilliant review xx

    • Thank you, if you watch it again, let me know your thoughts! I’ve watched it every few years since I was about nine, and it still grabs me. Slightly different each time.

  2. Great post, that scene when the girls walk trance like towards the rock always unnerved me

    • Thanks…yes, that scene always shat me up as a kid, especially the cut to Edith screaming & running. I still got creeped out watching it by myself the other night…

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