Saturday, 16 February 2013

Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)

I've been meaning to (re)watch Picnic At Hanging Rock for some time. I had last watched it at some stage in my very early teens so I knew it needed a proper viewing. This year, with my undertaking to watch as much Ozploitation and Aussie New Wave as possible, it seemed the right time to do so. Also of course the film is set on St Valentine's Day, 1900, and this being 16th Feb, there really was no time like the present.

The film tells the story of a school party taking a picnic at a local rock formation when four of the girls and their governess simply vanish inexplicably during the course of the day. 

I must take the time to admit that whilst I am on this enjoyable journey of Australian movies now, I didn't always have the enthusiasm for their film making. As a child I watched an awful lot of Australian cinema because my parents - who very nearly emigrated there in the early 70s - enjoyed it. The junior me always came away from watching such output with a stultified and deeply uncomfortable feeling, which I put down to the intolerable heat and themes these films often focused on. Picnic At Hanging Rock however is a film that deliberately sets out to make one feel unsettled. A film that deliberately tugs at your consciousness, it haunts and lingers in your mind, challenging your thoughts and what you feel you know. Ever dozed off after a few drinks on a hot day only to wake from a disturbing dream where, when left to recount the day's events, you're not altogether sure what was real and what was imagined? Well, that's Picnic At Hanging Rock.

Like its fellow Aussie films, Walkabout, Long Weekend and to an extent Wake In Fright (the latter two I've recently blogged about) Picnic At Hanging Rock depicts and suggests Australia as a landscape we 'interfere' with and inhabit at our peril. It's too ancient, unknowable and ultimately impossible to tame or civilise. It's Joan Lindsay's brilliance to set her work of fiction (and it is fiction, stemming from her 1967 novel, despite her canny pseudo-historical/factual writing style) in the year 1900, contrasting the buttoned up, repressed and virginal young women of the Victorian era with the mystical, wild and almost sensual landscape around them. It's a deeply feminine take on British colonial Australia versus the more natural Aboriginal Australia, and the myth and beliefs of 'dreamtime'

A bold and mystifying feature full of imagery and sounds in perfect harmony that will remain ingrained upon your brain forever, Picnic At Hanging Rock is also a film in which the mystery of the disappearing girls at its core is never resolved. Such ambiguity is expected in several films based on fact -  JFK or Stoned (the biopic of Brian Jones and his mysterious demise) say - but it is a rarity when it comes to fiction. Audiences simply expect fiction to have a neatly wrapped up conclusion and neither Lindsay nor the film's director Peter Weir delivers one. Indeed, Weir recounts how one US distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen after watching the film, disgusted that after 2 hours he was none the wiser! But to concentrate on the answer misses the point of the film; the mystery itself and how it makes you feel, and how it affects those characters in the film left behind, is the key. The 'solution' by Lindsay, the infamous errant Chapter Eighteen of her novel, was actually withdrawn on her publisher's advice at the time of its release, and was eventually published separately and posthumously in 1987 as The Secret Of Hanging Rock. It's summary is available at a glance online, but don't expect a definite solution, in fact it throws up more questions. Again, to look for the conclusion, an answer, would simply be missing the point.


  1. This is one of my favorite movies, and I agree, to enjoy it you don't need to have a solution. It's an amazing mood piece. It's worth it for Rachel Roberts alone. Each time I watch it I pick up new things. I like your description of it being like waking from a dream and not being sure what is real. Perfectly describes this perfect film.

    1. Thanks Ken! I know I won't let another decade plus pass until I watch it again now, definitely one to stay with me.