HCF REWIND NO. 178: PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK [Australia 1975]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 109 min/ 102 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream”.
On St. Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group leaves Appleyard College, a girls’ private school near Victoria, Australia, for a picnic at a local volcanic rock formation called Hanging Rock. Firstly, the watches of two of the teachers stop, than four of the girls and a teacher decide to explore. As Miss McCraw stares up from the base of the Rock, Miranda, Marion, and Irma move, as if in a dream, into a recess in the rock face, while Edith screams and flees down the Rock….
When one thinks of the term ‘Director’s Cut’, one generally expects a film that will be longer than its theatrical version, hopefully full of great scenes that nasty studio executives forced the filmmaker to cut. However, occasionally a Director’s Cut can be shorter. To be honest, I didn’t know about the existence of a Director’s Cut of Peter Weir’s beautiful, enigmatic film until I bought a cheap R2 DVD of the film and realised to my horror that certain bits were missing from a film I loved! I initially thought that it was the DVD distributors that had decided to not let me see that touching romance-that-almost-was between Michael and Irma, or Michael and Albert chatting in Michael’s loft with some booze, or that girl crying during the memorial service, but then on the back I read that it said ‘Director’s Cut’, so it was Weir’s decision. Of course a filmmaker has every right to go back and make adjustments to his work to improve it, and Weir actually wanted to cut these bits out, bits which grounded the film somewhat, back in 1975 to make it more enigmatic, but an unfortunate result of this is that the film’s original version has been supplanted by the Director’s Cut and is harder to obtain. Even the great R2 three-disc version only has the theatrical version in a decidedly inferior print to the Director’s Cut. I feel that this is an insult to people like myself who have grown up adoring this film and, interestingly, on the DVD documentary, some of the cast and crew are not too happy with the re-edit.
Picnic At Hanging Rock seems to be one of those films people love or hate, and, unlike say The Shawshank Redemption, where I can’t imagine how anyone can go so far as to actually hate the film, there is certainly a very good reason for this. Though it contains several obvious themes like sexual repression, coming of age and the incongruity and indeed arrogance of English settlers in Australia who make no attempt to adapt to this brave new world they’ve found themselves in, reduced to its most basic level Picnic At Hanging Rock is a supernaturally tinged mystery…that doesn’t give you a solution. I distinctly remember being fascinated by the story as a kid, even though the film was rather slow and ‘arty-farty’ for the tastes of a ten year old boy, but being incredibly frustrated by the ending, which not only failed to give me any answers but didn’t even contain much of a climax. Actually, to lovers of the film, and I later became one, the film is special precisely because of this. It does tease the careful viewer with certain hints and allusions, but refuses to settle on a single one. What is interesting is that Joan Lindsay’s novel originally contained a final chapter which explained it all, but her publisher persuaded her to leave it out. Chapter Eighteen was published posthumously in 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock.
Both the book and film give the impression that it’s all based on a true story, though Lindsay has always been vague about the matter. Searches for evidence have proved fruitless, but it has remained a source of great interest, especially in Australia, where in 1980 a book of hypothetical solutions by Yvonne Rousseau was published called The Murders at Hanging Rock. The film was Peter Weir’s [The Truman Show, The Mosquito Coast] second feature after The Cars That Ate Paris, and was made for a very low budget, something which the amazing cinematography goes some way to disguising. In casting the pupils of Appleyard College, Weir ended up searching for unknown girls from outside the cities, looking for the right ‘innocent face’ to fit the film, but this meant that apart from Anne-Louise Lambert, none of the other girls had any acting experience, and their amateur performances meant Weir had to cut out much of their dialogue or have it re-dubbed by others. Rachel Roberts took over the role of Mrs. Appleyard when Vivien Merchant became ill, and her preference for acting to a piece of tape on the wall helped create a frosty atmosphere. Meanwhile several odd things occurred at Hanging Rock like a rainstorm causing it to pour everywhere around the location but leaving it totally untouched by water, and Lambert, playing Miranda, suddenly seeing Lindsay stumble towards her, hug her and call her Miranda. Executive producer Patricia Lovell was so scared by the place she didn’t return until ten years later and left immediately. The film was a sensation in Australia and really kick-started the country’s film industry, though it didn’t get an American release until Weir’s next film, The Last Wave [which is also a fascinating work, albeit far lesser known, and will get a review on this website in due time!] had come out.
The first forty minutes or so of Picnic At Hanging Rock is stunning cinema of the very best. That’s not to say that what follows isn’t good too, but the first third is especially strong. The film immediately establishes a dreamlike atmosphere with its Edgar Allan Poe quote, haunting pan-flute music and lingering images of white-clad girls in whispering voices delighting in Valentine’s cards. The school seems to be a place bursting with repressed and developing sexuality, much of it seemingly of a Sapphic kind, with most seeming to have a crush on the beautiful Miranda, who tells her friend Sara that she “won’t be here much longer”. Of course there’s an unbending figure of authority in the form of Mrs. Appleyard, who seems to be especially cruel to poor Sara, an orphan and a charity pupil who is not allowed to go on the picnic to Hanging Rock ostensibly because she hasn’t memorised a poem. Her staff include the remote mathematics mistress Miss Greta McCraw who is said to have a ‘masculine’ intellect [see, I’m not reading too much into this film!], the young and beautiful Mademoiselle de Portiers who teaches French and deportment, and the jittery Miss Lumley, who is desperate to please the formidable Mrs. Appleyard.
The girls ride to Hanging Rock, a 500-foot tall volcanic rock formation about eleven km. northeast of the school. The picnic goes ahead, Russell Boyd ‘s photography being especially gorgeous here, but two watches stop [apparently Lindsay actually had some strange power that enabled her to stop people’s watches]. Some of the girls and a teacher set off to explore, unaware they are being watched by Michael, a well-off young Englishman who is out with his parents and who immediately falls in love with Miranda, and his Australian friend, the family’s valet Albert, who seems to be somewhat cruder in his comments about the girls than Michael. Then some of the group go for a climb, and composer Bruce Smeaton introduces a simply wonderful piece of music that seems to build and build in anxiety without ever reaching a proper climax. It looks like there are human faces in the rock formations and dark passages which all look very sexual. The seemingly bewitched girls do some kind of nature dance, fall onto the ground and then enter a crevice in a scene which is quite frightening even if we don’t see anything scary. The horrid sound effects and well chosen angles add greatly to the effect of the sequence, which always sticks in the memory. It ends when Edith runs screaming down the Rock.
The rest of the film details the aftermath, and it’s perhaps a flaw of the story that it has its most exciting scene a third of the way through. There are the expected questionings and searches, but in particular we follow Michael as the besotted lad eventually locates one of the girls atop Hanging Rock, though it’s not Miranda. Miranda’s spirit though does seem to possess a swan in some beautifully symbolic moments. Writer Cliff Green and Weir seem to struggle to fill some of the later sections, such as a subplot involving long-lost siblings which isn’t resolved in a satisfactory manner, and I’m not sure that the removal of a final scene on Hanging Rock, just before a major character’s suicide, was a good idea. As it stands, the film just kind of stops. The Director’s Cut mostly removed footage from near the end of the film and both sped up the pace and enhanced the tragedy, but the removal of Michael’s supposed romancing of Irma softens and simplifies his character. A first-time viewer of Picnic At Hanging Rock wouldn’t notice the missing scenes though.
So what did happen at Hanging Rock? Enticing clues which point to the fantastic but which are not followed through range from Miss McCraw examining a book of Geometry, to a body appearing where it was earlier not present, to Mrs. Appleyard having strange Aboriginal relics in a draw. On a more realistic basis, enough holes exist to suggest that Michael and/or Albert may have been involved and may even have committed rape, or the girls ran away and there was a conspiracy of silence, or….well, it’s really up to the viewer, a viewer who has to make up his or her mind whether to take in oblique suggestions of things like the Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’, a psychic state where you can travel to the distant past or the future, or make strong enough note of the huge amount of sexual elements and symbolism in a story which at times seems to be primarily a parable about adult sexuality destroying the innocence of childhood. I’ve given up trying to work it all out and just prefer to enjoy the film as a work of art. As a film, I do think it suffers from structural, pacing and conceptual issues, but as a work of art it’s so gorgeous and hypnotic that such flaws don’t really matter very much.
The main title organ and pan-pipe music, music which will never go away once you’ve seen the film, was actually derived from two traditional Romanian panpipe pieces. The combination of ethnic, classical [most notably Beethoven’s sublimely beautiful second movement from his Fifth Piano Concerto] and original music results in a superb soundtrack which, amazingly, has never had a commercial release despite the facts that it would both result in a great album and be a strong seller. Picnic At Hanging Rock is filled with mysteries, and every time I watch it I feel the tantalising sense of a deeper significance, but maybe, in the end, we’re just being played with, and perhaps there is actually no point to it all. If you’ve never seen this film, I recommend you do, because even if it annoys the hell out of you, you’ll be thinking about it for days afterwards.