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Around the World in 80 Films: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Next stop in my Around the World adventure was to Australia. I was keen to see Picnic at Hanging Rock, after reading Robin’s great piece for Rewind 1975 which helped to capture the film’s awe and mystery. There’s a reason why it remains such a landmark film in Australian cinema.

Set in 1900, the film deals with many themes, most notably the idea of sexual repression and female hysteria. The story is relatively simple; it’s St. Valentine’s Day, and in order to celebrate, a party of girls from a strict boarding school in Australia goes on a day’s outing to Hanging Rock, a geological outcropping not far from their school. Three of the girls and one of their teachers disappear into thin air. One of them is found a week or so later, but can remember almost nothing. The others are never found.

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Peter Weir manages to capture the dream-like quality of this mysterious story, never allowing the film to become melodramatic or histrionic. The film captures the sense of a fading daydream in a hot lazy summer’s day, and long after the film is finished, you are left with a haunting sense of unease. There’s a timeless quality to Picnic at Hanging Rock. The film plays around with the construct of time, implying that the girls and their teacher have somehow stepped beyond the construct of our time and reality.

Earlier, in the film a discussion is had about the age of the rock, and how it is has been waiting for the girls. In fact, the first words we hear are ”What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” The time within a dream is outside the realms of our physics and Weir manages to capture this so perfectly here. This is a film that seems to offer so much, and there’s an intense desire to automatically rewatch the film after finishing it, just in case there’s something that has been missed. It is a film that haunts your own dreams, and it has this way of getting under your skin.

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Weir manages to capture a nation on the brink of change, with the old ways of the Victorian past still clinging on for control as a new sense of freedom and independence fights to succeed. The young women of the school, struggle to contain their sexual urges, a reflection of what was occurring during the time.

Much of the film centres around Sara (Margaret Nelson), an orphaned girl who has passionate feelings for Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert). Sara doesn’t get to go on the fateful trip and there are suggestions that she’s been kept back partly because the headmistress believes their friendship is too intense. Miranda’s disappearance breaks Sara, and we see this young woman unable to grieve fully. It’s a wonderful performance by Nelson, who captures this young girl’s loneliness and heartbreak in such an astonishing way.

Russell Boyd’s cinematography is truly breathtaking, reinforcing this dreamlike quality to the film. Boyd managed to create this ethereal look with the simple technique of placing a piece of bridal veil over the camera lens. The use of gentle, sweeping pans across the Australian outback, help to create this feeling of isolation, and it feels as if nature itself will somehow swallow all civilisation up just like the girls who disappear. Boyd manages to show how vast this world is, and how vulnerable these girls are.

Certain moments create a strong sense of concern for the girl’s safety, for example when Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard) and Albert (John Jarratt), watch Miranda, Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Edith (Christine Schuler) cross the stream on their way to Hanging rock. The threat here isn’t the rock, but the male gaze. When asked later, about the incident, Michael can only recall the attractive girls completely forgetting Edith was there.

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It’s frustrating not to know exactly what happened to the girls’ in the film. It is more frustrating to try to see whether the novel (that the film was based on) is either a piece of pure fiction, or whether it’s factual based. The book’s author, Joan Leslie, presented it as fiction but hinted that it might be based on fact.

However, many have pointed out the fact that the film is set on a Saturday, and Valentine’s Day did not fall on a Saturday in 1900. There are many head scratching questions that arise while watching the film, but that’s the point of the film. Simply put; there are no explanations, the girls walked into the wilderness, and were seen no more.

Upon researching into the film, I discovered some interesting little pieces of trivia. While filming on location at Hanging Rock, actress Anne-Louise Lambert had a surreal encounter. During a break from shooting Lambert went for a walk through the woods. She turned to see Joan Lindsay, stumbling towards her. Lambert said Lindsay then embraced her with strong, joyful emotion and called her Miranda. It was a powerful moment for both of them.

Executive producer Patricia Lovell admits to being genuinely afraid of Hanging Rock. In an interview she explained that she has only gone back to Hanging Rock once since the shooting, and Lovell said she got so frightened at the location she left almost immediately. She refuses to go back to this day. It seems that to this day, there’s still a obsession with Hanging Rock and it’s mysterious reputation lives on.

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