Peter Weir: Picnic at Hanging Rock

On Saturday 14th February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the state of Victoria.

During the afternoon several members of the part disappeared without trace . . .

With that written introduction, we begin Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a hypnotic film that is centered on that strange (fictional — but this stuff does happen, all the time) disappearance on an otherwise pleasant — even soporific — school outing in 1900.

What is it about the “lost girl” plot — old and universal and perennial? Obviously, we are often drawn to unsolved mysteries, but it seems this type in particular has an extra charge, perhaps because it mixes fear of violent crime, guilt for all of the uncomfortably recognizable sordidness that would go along with this type of crime, and jealousy for the girl’s absolute physical escape. Those who remain behind suddenly find themselves in a fallen community: there may be a murderer in the midst; there is shame and guilt that the girl ever disappeared — and that envy. Those abandoned realize they are still terrestrial beings, locked in place, and some yearn for their own escape. Does any lost girl story — or any work of art, period — express this particular unification of fear, guilt, shame, and envy better than Picnic at Hanging Rock?

Picnic at Hanging Rock Cover

Last week The Criterion Collection released a beautiful, remastered, dual-format (DVD and Blu-ray) edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock (sadly, I don’t have the capability of taking stills from the Blu-ray, so the images below, while somewhat representative, are of much lower quality than what you’ll find on the Blu-ray disc; if I learn how to take high-resolution stills, I will replace these . . . so please tell me if you know).

I am obsessed with the film. Its opening statement suggests that the story is true, helping us forgive its excess (a trick the Coen Brothers used in Fargo) and preparing us for the dissatisfaction of a mystery without a solution. “Dissatisfaction” may be misapplied here. We yearn for some kind of release from the mystery, but if this wish were granted the result would also reduce the film’s power and our own look into ourselves. After all, any solution would be more mundane or silly than anything our minds can dream up (which we can easily confirm if we dig deeply and read the original ending of Joan Lindsay’s source novel and glimpse Weir’s own alternate ending to the film). Unresolved, the film is perfectly unsatisfactory . . . or, in other words, extremely satisfying. I’ve been up at night thinking about this film’s mystery and Weir’s incredible work. I love it when that happens. It reminds me of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw because its ambiguity has a range of interpretations from the mundane to the truly abhorrent.

And that’s what makes it great. The film isn’t really about any kind of solution. Rather, it’s about our desire for a solution, our discomfort when we come face to face with the fact we are not in control, that we might not know those around us, that the world is not as it seems. It’s about our fears, our guilt, our deviant imagination, our envy. The tight parameters of society have, due to the mystery, become porous. It’s the mystery that allows us to sense that we are in a dream within a dream, which is actually a nightmare, and maybe there’s hope we can wake up.

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The film opens on St. Valentine’s Day morning in 1900. We are at Appleyard College, an all-female private school in the state of Victoria, Australia. The girls, still in their underwear, are reading Valentine’s cards and poems, including a slight misquotation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream”: “What we see and what we seem are but a dream — a dream within a dream.” The girls prepare for the day, washing their faces in water filled with flower petals, brushing their hair with ornately designed brushes, and helping one another into their tight corsets, an image that, as pointed out in the film’s introduction by film scholar David Thomson, at once represents sexuality and its oppression:

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It also serves as a nice indication of what type of school Appleyard College is. These are girls being raised to refinement, as the term is understood by the strict mores of the time. They are expected to lock up their sexuality, while still making themselves appropriately attractive to the gentlemen.

While we are meeting the girls, one stands out to us, just as she stands out to the other characters in the film: Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert). Almost a side character (she’s one who disappears in the first half hour of the film), she and her allure are central to the film’s tone and enigma. Even when physically present, she is mysterious, as if she knows something the others do not. Many characters are attracted to her, including her fellow schoolmate, Sara (Margaret Nelson), an orphan who seems to have a crush on Miranda. Miranda is the embodiment of “what we see and what we seem are but a dream.”

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The school is run by a staunch British woman named Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts, who, for my money, is more chilling in her moral high-mindedness and authority than Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Even when attempting to be beneficent — Mrs. Appleyard has decided to allow the girls to go on a picnic at Hanging Rock (a real location in Victoria) — the cruelty of her seemingly arbitrary use of power can’t be masked. As the girls descend the stairs, Sara is told she will not be allowed to go on the trip, and we never know why — she just isn’t (again, our mind can run the range in such ambiguity: perhaps it’s because her tuition is not paid in full, perhaps it’s because she is an orphan, perhaps it’s because she is not doing well in her studies, perhaps it’s because Mrs. Appleyard has recognized Sara’s infatuation with Miranda, perhaps Sara is the pet lightning rod . . . we could go on.

The rest of the girls are to be chaperoned by Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) and Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse). Mrs. Appleyard’s telling, cruel generosity continues: she tells the girls they may remove their white gloves, but only after they are past the town. And so they arrive at Hanging Rock.

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It’s an idyllic scene away from the school. The girls have now removed their white gloves, another temporary escape, albeit a minor one, and they lie in the sun. The cinematographer, Russell Boyd, captures the beauty and langour of that midday light. It’s also hot, and here we find the girls and adults bundled up in the Australian heat as if they were guarding against an English rainstorm that will simply never come. They’re revealing in the natural world, while trying to maintain a distance created by decorum.

After a time, three of the girls asked if they can explore the rock. They won’t be gone long, Miranda says. A fourth girl, the awkward and obnoxious Edith (Christine Schuler), tags along.

Watching the girls are a couple of young men who are also lunching at Hanging Rock, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), an Englishman visiting his uncle and aunt, and Albert (John Jarratt), their valet. Albert wryly comments on the girls’ figures. Michael says he doesn’t like such crass talk, but Albert hits the nail on the head: he says it, while Michael only thinks it. The one that draws the most attention, is Miranda; Michael seems hypnotized by her. The girls continue on their way up the rock.

Hanging Rock itself is a viable presence. It seems to breathe and watch over the party. An obvious symbol of primal forces (on the way to the rock Miss McCraw says the rock “erupted from deep within”), Hanging Rock is a force of nature that is unrecognizable to the young genteel girls, though they feel it. Its mystery pulls the four straying girls further up its slopes where Edith watches with shock as the other three girls remove their shoes and then their stockings. Finally, to Edith’s absolute terror, Miranda leads the other three throw a narrow passage, never to return.

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Edith runs back to the picnic screaming. She cannot explain what happened. After a fruitless search, and the further discovery that Miss McCraw has also disappeared, the party reluctantly returns to Appleyard.

This is a little more than a quarter of the way into the film. We now watch everything back at the college unravel as the girls, the administration, and the community try to understand what has happened.

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People have their suspicions; Michael himself is the subject of a minor inquiry since he followed the four girls for a bit after they passed him and Albert. Other mysteries arise and deepen.

For one, there’s Sara. As she deals with Miranda’s disappearance, she must also deal with a school atmosphere that takes pleasure in torturing her. She speaks once to a sympathetic ear about her time in an orphanage and her older brother. Albert himself talks of being in an orphanage and his younger sister, Sara. Why is this part of the storyline? I cannot say.

Later on, Irma (Karen Robson), one of the girls who disappeared on the rock, is actually found. Her body shows no sign of molestation, and her injuries are limited to her hands, as if she were clawing her way through something. Other than that, her body is fine. She has no memory of what happened on the rock. In one of the more terrifying scenes, after her convalescence, she visits the girls who remained at Appleyard as they exercise in a room that looks more like a torture chamber, with a sign that says “Health is beauty” hanging up behind them.

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There she is, in the middle, wearing red. We know what red signifies, but we don’t understand how it applies in this instance. She is, by the doctor’s own word, still virginal, and whatever knowledge she gained on the rock has been lost.

Meanwhile, Sara has been tied up in the back, ostensibly to correct her posture.

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Why wouldn’t these girls want to escape so badly that, when given the chance, they simply disappear? Why wouldn’t the prospects of such an escape terrify a girl like Edith, who probably finds some comfort in the school. Did Irma injure her hands clawing her way back because what she found on the other side of whatever was so terrifying, or was that way simply shut off to her, though she desperately wanted to follow the knowing, transcendent Miranda. And why does Miss McCraw become condemned or blessed with her own disappearance. These are only a few of the mysteries — it’s beautiful and horrific, particularly when paired with the other forms of escape we see in the film.

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I want to turn my attention here to the new Criterion Collection edition. One thing of note is that it is the director’s cut, put together in the late 1990s, which is, perhaps surprisingly, shorter than the original theatrical cut. This version excludes lines that some people find important; for example, the entire relationship between Michael and Irma, the girl who returned from the rock has been removed here. For me, this is not a big concern. Neither is the other minor missing scene concerning Mrs. Appleyard and Sara. I don’t think it’s necessary; the mystery of Sara’s fate is still intact.

The new Criterion Collection edition also comes with a number of excellent supplements:

There is a ten-minute introduction to the film by David Thomson, a film scholar and author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Thomson talks mostly about the impact the film had on Australian cinema as a whole, opening the door to the world.

There are also a few compilations of interviews with cast and crew.

First, there is Recollection . . . Hanging Rock 1900, a twenty-six-minute, 1975 on-set documentary. It is hosted by producer Patricia Lovell as she goes around asking cast and crew about the story and, primarily, the rock itself and its mysterious history, obviously (but effectively) building it up for the film’s release. She asks Dominic Guard (who is playing Michael) if he’d actually stay over night on Hanging Rock, as his character does; he says he might since he’s English and doesn’t know about the rock, aptly covering one of the film’s themes. Lovell even asks locals about their theories of the missing girls, with one suggesting the rocks sound hollow so maybe they fell in one. Lovell also talks to Weir, Rachel Roberts (who isn’t in any of the newer features since she died in 1980 at only 53), and Joan Lindsay, the author of the source novel (Lindsay is also not around for the later supplements since she also died a few decades ago in 1984, at 88). Great stuff.

Next, there is a thirty-minute documentary, Everything Begins and Ends, which, though newly produced, features interviews from 2003 with Lovell and her co-producers Hal and Jim McElroy, cinematographer Russell Boyd, and actors Helen Morse and Anne-Louise Lambert. This documentary covers a lot of ground, with people talking about their own experiences at the rock and their own recollections of the production and the film’s impact on world cinema. I was very interested to learn that Anne-Louise Lambert, whose image is iconic, was not intended to be Miranda. It’s just something that fell together when Weird realized she was Miranda.

That’s not the only thing that fortuitously fell together, we learn. Capping off the interviews is a great twenty-five-minute 2003 interview with Peter Weir, in which he discusses with more depth aspects of the production, aspects that increase the film’s mystery and power. He was willing to take risks and try things out just because he felt like it. That kind of gamble doesn’t always pay off, but it did here. Rachel Roberts was not cast to play Mrs. Appleyard until just before production began (the prior actress fell through). Weird talks about Roberts’ genuine discomfort playing Appleyard, fearing what she thought was the girls’ actual hatred of her. He also confirms what we may be thinking: this film was an uncomfortable to create. Weir said he tried to liven it up a bit between takes, but the actors just wouldn’t or couldn’t.

Another impressive feature is Weir’s 1971 film Homesdale (which he credits as being the film that brought the producers to his door to film Picnic). It’s a bizarre, 41-minute black-and-white film. I don’t think it’s particularly good, but it is an interesting look at Weir’s beginnings and into some of the techniques he’d use (and improve) for Picnic.

Inside the case is a booklet with an essay by Megan Abbott, an author of crime fiction who has admitted to being inspired by a different kind of “lost girls” story: Jeffrey Eugenides’ brilliant The Virgin Suicides (Mookse review here), a book I think of when I think of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its midday sun and mysterious loss. Abbott’s is a nice essay that jumps into quite a bit of psychoanalysis. Also in the booklet is an excerpt from film-scholar Marek Haltof’s 1996 books Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide. Haltof’s excerpt traces the history of Australian cinema, and I was shocked to see the numbers: only 17 Australian feature films were made in the 1960s, much less than the 163 in the 1910s and the 90 in the 1920s . . . the numbers keep going down to that 1960s nadir. Then, the government became involved with funding. In the 1970s, 153 features were made, and Picnic at Hanging Rock pushed Australian cinema to the world.

Lastly (other than the film’s trailer) is the novel itself, in a special edition from Penguin.

Picnic-at-Hanging-Rock-Nove

I haven’t read this yet, but I’m anxious to, and I hope to see how it compares with the film and cover it all here.

If you cannot tell, I highly recommend the film, especially as presented in this edition.

10 thoughts on “Peter Weir: Picnic at Hanging Rock

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Great review.

    Haven’t seen this in a while, although I have seen it at least three times. I think it’s a great piece of work, chilling, provocative, mesmerising. This is a great excuse to revisit.

    “Why wouldn’t these girls want to escape so badly that, when given the chance, they simply disappear?”

    It’s funny: the first time I saw it I found it maddening (fascinatingly) and, perhaps predictably considering how old I was, wondered endlessly (pointlessly) about what had happened. It’s only later that the question you pose becomes more and more apt. Is it, then, a kind of ethereally damning comment on their plight? It’s only the last time I watched it I was no longer thinking about the ‘how’ and wondering much more about the ‘why’.

    Peter Weir hasn’t made enough films of this standard.

  2. chilling, provocative, mesmerizing

    I completely agree!

    Peter Weir hasn’t made enough films of this standard.

    Sadly, I agree here as well. I like several of his films — Gallipoli, Witness, and The Truman Show come first to mind — but I think this is his masterpiece. The others are good to great. Which are your favorites, and are any above or on the same tier as Picnic for you?

  3. Lee Monks says:

    You mention Truman and I’ve always loved that. I’d say of those of his I’ve seen that it and the film you cover here are his best two. I thought Fearless had a great opening 30 but ran out of steam, as though (and it’s not the only occasion I’ve felt this way watching a Peter Weir film) he got bored of material that didn’t particularly interest him.

  4. I never saw Fearless, I’m afraid. Though I should say that I also enjoyed Master and Commander. Again, some very good films in Weir’s filmography, with this as my favorite.

    I need to rewatch Walkabout, especially since I just read the book for the first time. I am anxious to dig into the supplements there and see how it lines up with PIcnic as an important Australian film.

  5. Lee Monks says:

    Walkabout: another great film. Nic Roeg has a better batting average than Weir: I wonder why that is?

  6. Beyond Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Witches (didn’t know that was his until I just looked him up), I am not too familiar with Roeg’s work. Criterion has a few of his titles in their catalog, though The Man Who Fell to Earth is out of print, so I’ve been meaning to get to know him better. But, yeah, where else should I look in his filmography?

    (by the way, heard rumors that Criterion might be issuing a Blu-ray of Don’t Look Now soon . . . I know you don’t have them in your neck of the woods, but here in the states this is great news!)

  7. Lee Monks says:

    I have a friend who spends a fair old premium getting particular Criterion titles in on import so judging by that…I know what things of beauty they are, mind: the cover designs are always fantastic and I may look into getting a couple.

    Performance (with Cammell) springs to mind. The Man Who Fell To Earth is great. But you’ve already toplined the ‘big two’ I think…

    (There’s a cut in Don’t Look Now that’s still my favourite piece of juxtapositional editing ever. It’s absolute genius…)

  8. I once went to a double feature of The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock back in the early 1980’s when you could still do that in theatres. I remember there were several people who left before the end because they were just too “creeped out.’ While neither movie is scary in a thriller sense of the world, both were so spooky, moody, that they certainly gave most of the audience the creeps by the end.

    We loved them.

  9. I’ve never seen The Last Wave, but I know a bit about it. Seems like a great double-feature that I may have to put together on my own some day!

  10. Great review of a great film.

    The Last Wave I remember positively, but I don’t recall it having anything like the impact this had on me. Master and Commander is a lot of fun, but a very different kind of movie. This is a film the word haunting was made for, and it sounds a tremendous rerelease.

    There’s a couple of Megan Abbott reviews at mine by the way Trevor if you’re interested in her, including most recently the book that probably got her the writing gig for this release (The End of Everything). She’s a very able writer, though very much in-genre – crime’s her literary territory.

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