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Innocence Lost: Peter Weir’s First Masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock

“You must learn to love someone other than me, I won’t be here for long.” – Miranda

In among the American heavyweight movies of 1975, is the small, but exceptional, Australian picture, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Punching above its weight on so many levels, and justifiably so, the flick brought the illustrious Peter Weir onto the cinematic world map. Adapted for the screen by Cliff Green, from Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a serene kind of mystery. Coated in a clandestine wonder, this is a motion picture that lives long, long in the memory.

Lindsay would claim the story was true as part of her fiction work, but the publishers politely suggested they omit that part. Picnic at Hanging Rock was a lifelong meditation for Lindsay. Writing the novel sixty years after her first actual visit to the enigmatic, natural structure as a very small child. In 1900, no less, the setting for the tale. Valentine’s Day, too, was personally significant to Lindsay. Some truths you can’t deny.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

The ethereal images of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), have been synonymous with Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the seemingly angelic aura. “I know that Miranda is a Botticelli angel.” – one teacher declares to herself in awe. But the story is a famous one about a group of well-to-do school girls who wander off, and vanish. Set in Victoria, Australia, at the turn of the century (Valentine’s Day, 1900 to be precise), a group of girls from the Appleyard College, a girls’ private school, are taken on a picnic for the afternoon at the infamous Hanging Rock site.

The cast also includes renowned actresses, Vivean Gray, as mathematics mistress Miss McCraw, Helen Morse, as French mistress Mademoiselle de Poitiers, and Rachel Roberts, as the strict headmistress Mrs. Appleyard. A young Jacki Weaver also shows up in a small role. The younger, unknown, cast, including Lambert, play their roles with such innocent poise, and a yearning for adulthood. Hats off to the likes of Karen Robson, Marion Quade, Christine Schuler, and Margaret Nelson. The latter, as the mistreated Sara, demonstrates a sorrowful sense of isolation.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock may well be about the mystery of the girls disappearing through the beautiful, but daunting, rocks, but there are so many strands to grasp hold of linking back to the girls. The divide between the stern system within the school walls, and the big, bright world outside, is perfectly captured. Having seen the girls moments before their disappearance, a young Englishman, Michael (Dominic Guard), and friend, Albert (John Jarratt), are drawn into the melancholic puzzle.

At the time of conception, Peter Weir was asked why this particular film, what was it that made him want to do this. Many of those working around the director saw his response to the material. Not just the physical script, but the vivid senses and depiction of a primal nature. Joan Lindsay, a keen gardener, was a great admirer of the landscape, and her Picnic at Hanging Rock was essentially about that. Weir was seduced by the book, and made an incredible effort to convey that to film. Like the nature of the story itself, some things do not need explaining.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock was shot in just six weeks. And although mostly set in a matter of hours, the finished product would suggest a far greater time behind the scenes. Especially when you take into account the limited amount of daylight the crew had, or in fact, actual sunlight. There was very little money, and time for that matter. And initially, the picnic shooting itself was scheduled for just the one day.

Director of photography Russell Boyd, pressed for this to change. Offering a persistent, expert opinion on the very best times of day to shoot, thus demanding they project this across several days. Thankfully, the producers budged on this. And the results are astounding. Boyd won a BAFTA for his cinematography, and fully deserves the credit attributed to the gorgeous scope, and innovative lens work, of Picnic at Hanging Rock, all these years later.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

And to all, a hearty adoration. Moments of such tragic bliss. The motion slowing down the moment Miranda leaps from one rock to the other. The diagonal row of girls as they all pull tight the one in front’s corset. The incapacitated Michael passing Albert a torn piece of lace from a dress – prompting him into action, running back up the steam, grassy hill to Hanging Rock. An uphill battle indeed. And the intoxicating superimposed images of the girls in their white, wavy dresses, and the birds fluttering off in the endless sky.

The use of music is also something extraordinary. Classical pieces, seamlessly fitting, from the likes of Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven. I know, many movies have used many examples of classical music over the decades, but with Picnic at Hanging Rock the choices leave a lasting impression greater than most. Australian composer Bruce Smeaton wrote some original score compositions to feature in the film. Again, utilized affectingly.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Perhaps the most memorable music from the film, is the organic, poignant sounds of the traditional Romanian panpipe. Weir approached composer Gheorghe Zamfir, after hearing his lucid work, and invited him to write something new for the film. Zamfir, though, was not too interested at that time in creating new music, so the rights were bought to the pieces you hear in the film. A blessing, surely.

A well-executed masterpiece, there’s not really a big screen experience to rival such a feat. Weir an co. likely inspired certain female directors many, many years later with the look and ambiance of, say, The Virgin Suicides, and the beguiling Mustang. As the girls lay in the rocks, shortly before they are lost, apparently dazed by the sun, we, the audience, are also magnetized. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a dazzling, hypnotic film, somehow blending the tranquil with the unsettling. This truly is alluring, making you feel at ease, and a sense of peril, at the very same time. Glorious, and heartbreaking.

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