Picnic at Hanging Rock
April 17th 2009 04:05
Matt Shea is a guest writer on 20/20 Filmsight, and has his own excellent movie review site at Screen Trek.
Joan Lindsay’s novel, “Picnic at Hanging Rock", created a considerable stir when it was first printed in 1967. The story of a party of girls from a strict turn of the century Australian boarding school who go missing after a picnic to the titular rock captured the imagination of readers in Australia and then around the globe. Lindsay herself displayed a touch of chutzpah by hinting that the story may have been based on fact. While this turned out not to be true, the ethereal tale nevertheless retained an unnerving aura and it was perhaps only a matter of time before somebody attempted to capture on screen what was so vividly painted in readers’ imaginations. The result was the 1975 film adaptation, which bucks any ideas of making the story more fathomable, instead opting to use the full force of its medium to deepen the mystery even further and spin the audience out into a suffocating dreamscape.
Adapted for the screen by Clifford Green and directed by a 31-year-old Peter Weir, the film opens at a twee boarding school situated in country Australia where the school’s uptight mistress, Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), has decided to send her pupils on a St Valentine’s Day picnic to the geographic oddity known as Hanging Rock. Once at the picnic grounds, several of the girls, led by the lovely Miranda (Anne Lambert), ignore strict instructions to stay off the formation and decide to explore its upper reaches. Up high, Hanging Rock becomes a desolate and strangely menacing place, almost alive with supernatural energy. Crags and divots seem to form faces that watch the group, drawing them on deeper into a trance and higher up the rock. Three of the girls go missing, two inexplicably never to return, their bodies never found. The more the teachers, police and local townsfolk look for answers, the more maddening the mystery becomes and the tragedy sets off a chain reaction of events that start to eat away at the brittle Victorian class structure of both school and town.
Green and Weir took an interesting approach with their adaptation of “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. Instead of cutting away characters and cementing the tale into a three act structure, they chose a much more audacious route, highlighting the strangeness of the story and neglecting to provide any easy answers for the audience. This has the effect of bringing to the surface the palpable subtext and rich themes that all run through the film, whether it be the girls sexuality, budding but for the symbolic corsets that help keep them chaste, or the flaccid rules of the British Empire, that have little bearing on such a hostile landscape. So while the fate of the girls is a horrifying proposition, there’s also a sense that perhaps they escaped from this hastily constructed early Australian society, with its hackneyed pomp and illusions of class.
The result is a fever dream of a film, where nothing seems to make sense but you rush on anyway, anticipating the horror that lies just out of sight. When one of the girls, Irma (Karen Robson), is eventually found, her blank memory and strange set of injuries add to the confusion rather than providing any firm answers. The remaining characters all seemingly fall into their own fugue state, the tragedy drawing them together while at the same time isolating each in their own personal entropy. Gradually, the stiff ties of the Empire are slowly unwound and formerly intimidating characters such as Mrs Appleyard are left limp in their insignificance. Driven on by Bruce Smeaton’s frightening score and given grace despite its unnerving velocity by editor Max Lemon, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is compelling filmmaking. Cerebral but not pretentious and oblique without being obtuse, this is a film that can be delineated from its source material simply by the tremendous effect it has had on its own medium. For any fan of Australian cinema, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” remains an essential classic.
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" is part of the Literary Adaptations: Australia box set, available from Umbrella Entertainment
*this image is from FFFound!
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