Film Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Published on: December 9, 1997
Leading Players: Rachel Roberts (Mrs. Appleyard), Dominic Guard (Michael Fitzhubert), Helen Morse (Dianne De Poiters), Jacki Weaver (Minnie), Vivean Gray (Miss Greta McGraw), Kirsty Child (Dora Lumley), Anne Lambert (Miranda), Karen Robson (Irma), Jane Vallis (Marion), Christine Schuler (Edith Horton)
Main Crew: prod, Jim McElroy, Hal McElroy; dir, Peter Weir; writ, Cliff Green (based on the novel by Joan Lindsay); dop, Russel Boyd; ed, Max Lemon; mus, Bruce Smeaton; art d, David Copping; cos, Judy Dorsman
In an age in which the world was re-discovering itself, Australians found solace in this ambiguous, but ultimately satisfying, work by Peter Weir. Following an age of re-identification led on by feminist movements, sexual liberation and the loss of faith in figures of authority as a result of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, the '70s marked a new beginning for citizens from around the world. In Australia, too, people began to challenge authority in their quest for resolution. It was an age of social reform that, in Australia, was equaled only by the age of Federation that marked the dawning of the century.
It is perhaps for this reason, therefore, that a number of Australian films released during the 1970s, including Picnic At Hanging Rock, were set in the early years of the 20th century. Only through referring to such a turbulent age, in which cultures collided with misguided force and sexual repression was at its peak, could Weir create such a timeless and powerful piece to which citizens of the '70s could relate so closely.
As the film opens, we are greeted with scenes of exquisite beauty, enhanced by precise, smooth camera movements, slow motion photography, diffused light and the hauntingly sweet sounds of the panpipe. During the 110 minutes that follow, the ethereal, mystical beauty of the mise-en-scene continues to toy with our emotions as the film takes the form of a gothic thriller-of-sorts. Both the style and narrative of the film tell stories stories that occasionally conflict; stories that are rarely resolved. During the process, a number of themes are explored.
Perhaps the most explicit theme deals with extreme sexual repression and the wanton defiance of such traditional customs. Every part of the film's form and its setting exudes a sense of repression. The movie opens on St. Valentine's Day in a strict girls' boarding school and we are shown a montage of images as the girls prepare for the exciting day that lies ahead of them. During such time, Weir presents us with images of girls squeezing into tight, restraining corsets and lining up in rows obediently. The placement of the director's credit, too, illuminates the symbolism of one particular scene in which the main character is pressing a stem of daisies in a flower press. Not only is this the ultimate symbol of sexual repression, but it is representative of part of the plot that follows: the eternal preservation of Miranda's angelic, virgin image following her mysterious disappearance.
Further to this, a number of elements of the mise-en-scene enhance and maintain this theme as a notion that continues throughout the picture. The reappearance of flowers, predominantly daisies, forms a motif that marks periods in the film in which the girls feel some relief from the constant repression that confines their spirits. The same can be said about the removal of items of clothing. The fact that the girls are so delighted and relieved to be able to remove their gloves during their passage to Hanging Rock leads us to be shocked when the mystical allure of the rock tempts them to remove their shoes and stockings. The subsequent disappearance of Irma's corset reinforces the notion that the natural, primitive "calling" of the rock has led the girls to throw off the shackles of their oppressors in favour of nature and freedom.
Birds are, at many times, compared to the girls. Again, this imagery is symbolic of the desires that the girls have for freedom. Miranda, especially, is compared to birds on numerous occasions. In one scene, for example, her face is overlaid with the image of a flock of birds taking to flight, as if to symbolise her spirit's desire to soar past the confines of time and space. On other occasions, she is compared to a graceful white swan.
The third, and perhaps the strongest, theme that resonates from the film's diagesis is that of clashing cultures. A number of contrasts are drawn between nature and civilisation and between different social classes. Most obviously, the contrast between nature the primitive and free; and culture the contemporary and repressed, is illustrated in the film's two main monoliths: the Rock and Appleyard College. The imposing, overbearing fašade of the Appleyard building is even shot in the same manner as the menacing, but alluring, rocks. In order to enhance the eerie, otherworldly nature of the Rock, Weir, Green and Lemon arranged a montage of shots of the various rocks that cap the mountain, each featuring the image of a face sculpted into its exterior. As if drawing on the primitive, Aboriginal past that has deemed the area sacred, the faces seem to represent the elders and visionaries of a time long ago. The girls' willingness to remove their clothing and climb the rock displays their desire to return to the values of the past and to work towards spiritual awakening rather than social acceptance as has been forced upon them.
Similar contrasts are drawn between the wealthy and poor; foreigners the Scottish gardener and English aristocratic families and the established Australian population. The ability of these cultures to meld during the course of the film is testament to the racial equality that groups were fighting for during the 1970s. It is also symbolic of Australia's birth as a multicultural society that, strangely, doesn't seem to treat its indigenous inhabitants (materialised in the form of the Rock) with such respect. As such, the clash between the Aboriginal culture (of which we see no physical evidence) and the Anglo-Saxon groups is the underlying concern. In this, the film succeeds in emphasising the ambiguous relationship between the incoming residents and the mysterious, mystical ways of its ancient inhabitants.
The motif of time and, more particularly, the stopping of time, is symbolic of the film's worldly, timeless relevance. Weir is alluding to the statement that the basic necessities of life, and basic freedoms to which all people are entitled, cross over the boundaries of time, race and class thus eliminating any controlling factors.
In many respects, Picnic At Hanging Rock can be revered as the movie that led Australia's cinematic expansion and recognition on a global scale. The popularity that it attracted is testament to the skillful craftsmanship of the film-makers responsible for piecing together such a visually breathtaking piece and to the mystical attraction that the image of Australia holds so many people's minds. Special mention must be made of Bruce Smeaton whose musical score enhances not only the splendid imagery and visions that the film arouses, but builds on the film's themes with its trembling, uneasy, mystical qualities.
It can easily be argued, however, that the film's appeal lies not in the visual and aural spectacle that audiences witnessed onscreen, but in what was never revealed. The complete sense of ambiguity that shrouds the film's narrative even after the film has finished gives the work a chilling, unresolved air that leaves the audience with a sense of helplessness and confusion that lingers in the mind long after the screen has turned black.