Film of the week: Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975)
With its breath-taking impressionistic cinematography and perpetual tale of a disappearance of three schoolgirls and their school teacher, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a poetic masterpiece that leaves many questions unanswered. On St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of school girls from Appleyard College private boarding school in Australia go on an outing to Hanging Rock. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when four of the girls separate from the rest of their classmates to go and explore the rock. What follows is a mesmeric and dream-like sequence of the girls frolicking through long grass and skipping across a river as they make their way towards the hidden crevices of Hanging Rock. As they ascend further up the rock, it’s as if the rock is alive. Shots of the rock resemble faces and figures as if it is gazing down on the girls and tracking their movements. The Australian outback is an unknown world, which so often is a significant element of Australian cinema. Films such as Walkabout (Roeg, 1971), Wake in Fright (Kotcheff, 1971), Mad Max (Miller, 1979), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Elliot, 1994) and The Proposition (Hillcoat, 2005) also explore similar themes of the vastness of the unknown outback.
What happened at Hanging Rock remains one of the great mysteries of Australian cinema. Many theories exist surrounding the disappearance of the girls and their teacher, including several theories which suggest that the girls were kidnapped. Another theory implies that the events all took place within the mind of the school head teacher, Mrs Appleyard. Theories about Mrs Appleyard’s past even exist. Her past is only briefly touched upon, but has greater implications of the foreshadowing events of the story, which sadly would be the same fate of Rachel Roberts who portrayed her.
The fact that Hanging Rock is sacred indigenous Australian ground offers a more mystical explanation. Ultimately, it is clear that no explanation is the intention and Weir’s adaptation faithfully sticks to this, keeping viewers guessing. Supposedly, the original ending of Joan Lindsey’s 1967 novel, which sadly had to be omitted, involved a time warp and a character who transforms into a lizard, which is obviously the most reasonable explanation. Nonetheless, viewers will undoubtedly continue to develop their own theories behind the mystery, though the original ending would have made for some great cinema.