Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Miranda is a swan. I get it.

Miranda is a swan. I get it.

Before I write about Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock I have to confess something: I fell prey to its mythology as so many other people apparently have and believed it was based on a true story. This simply is not so, though it seems Joan Lindsay, the author of the novel on which this film is based, kept the story’s origins as ambiguous as possible, and Weir seems all too happy to perpetuate the mystery.

Of course, this approach makes sense: the film tells the story of an unsolved mystery, so why shouldn’t the film also be shrouded in mystery? Set in 1900 at Appleyard College, a finishing school for girls in Victoria, Australia, Picnic at Hanging Rock focuses on twenty-or-so young women dressed in white frills, stockings and lace. The stern Mrs. Appleyard has graciously offered the girls a special Valentine’s Day gift: a chance to picnic at Hanging Rock, a local rock formation down the road. She warns the girls to be wary of the poisonous wildlife, and not to explore the rock too much, and informs them they’ll be back for a “light supper” at eight.

What a lovely place for a picnic! Ants on your tea cake!

What a lovely place for a picnic! Ants on your tea cake!

Returning to the college on time would have been easy, except for everyone’s watches stopping at dead noon while at Hanging Rock. Miss McCraw, the mathematics teacher, assumes it must be something magnetic causing the watches to stop. Four girls ask their teacher for permission to explore the rock on their own, and when granted Miranda (a “Botticelli Angel”), Irma, Marion and, hesitatingly for all involved, Edith, skip off together for an adventure.

The girls are not the only people to be found at the rock; there are two adults and two young men, unrelated to the school, who are also there. The two men, one a rough-and-tumble Aussie named Albert and the other, Michael, a prim and proper boy, witness the girls crossing a stream. Michael is rather taken with Miranda’s beauty, and is prompted to follow them, but quickly loses them after they cross the stream.

The girls climbing the rock.

The girls climbing the rock.

At a certain point in the afternoon, the entire group is overtaken with sleep – all those at the base of the rock, except, apparently, Miss McCraw. The girls on the rock also end up napping, but soon Miranda, Irma and Marion wake up and drift off deep into one of the rock’s many recesses, despite Edith’s grating pleas to stay put. This prompts Edith to run down the rock, screaming: and on the way, she bumps into a skirt-less Miss McCraw. Edith of course wakes up everyone at the base of the rock, and all are hysterical about the fact that the three girls and Miss McCraw are missing without a trace.

I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that three of the four

Uh-oh, the stockings are coming off...

Uh-oh, the stockings are coming off…

remain missing forever; this film is not about answers. What is this film about, then? Well, I think it is about the young girls and their budding sexuality in the Victorian age in the context of a strange, untamed land. In the first few scenes of the movie we see shots of girls lacing up each-others corsets and reading innocent Valentine’s Day cards to one another. Once the girls get onto the brutish rock they’re compelled to remove <gasp!> their stockings. The girl that is found is “perfectly intact” (meaning of course that she has not been raped by an Aborigine or some other unspeakable horror) but her corset is mysteriously missing. Miss McCraw is seen running

That looks like a fun place to be.

That looks like a fun place to be.

up the rock in her undies. Is the rock some sort of liberation from the confines of Victorian society? Are these women casting off Victorian ideals and embracing the wild nature of their new home? Or is it darker than that? Is it a cautionary tale that the civilized world does not belong in the harsh landscape of the outback? Is the stark contrast between the girls and the landscape supposed to evoke the inherent strangeness of the British living in Australia, a land so alien to their home?

All in all, I really enjoyed this movie, but at times I was bothered by some of the heavy symbolism, the flute-heavy soundtrack and the constant references to Miranda’s angelic nature. Still, this movie’s kind of awesome, even if it’s a bit dated, and it should probably be on your must-see list.


2 Responses to “Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)”

  1. 1 ladyfaceladyface
    January 24, 2013 at 6:58 am

    Flute-heavy soundtrack… LOL

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