Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): Oblivion in the Outback

Directed by Peter Weir (The Cars that Ate Paris) and adapted for the screen by Cliff Green from the book written by Joan Lindsay. The film has the “unofficial” title of being Australia’s most loved film and it was a critic’s favourite when it opened in 1975. It has since risen to a cult favourite. The screenplay should be counted as one of the best adaptations of a book it is amazingly faithful although the ending was altered a bit.

The film got off to an inauspicious start when the actress cast as Mrs Appleyard fell ill at the last moment and Rachel Roberts agreed to step in and take over the role. Such tricks of fate can seldom be so advantageous. Roberts gave the role as the schools headmistress a sinister and cold air that was apparent in the book and that helped the adaptation seem all the more faithful.

The remainder of the cast was split into well-known Australian actors and most of the children were unknown. Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver, Tom Llewellyn-Jones, and Anne-Louise Lambert were all well-known to the Australian public with Morse and Weaver being somewhat better known than the rest. Weaver seems to have enjoyed a “Barbara Windsor” type of reputation and Morse had been extremely active in television.

The film, like the book, is set in the year 1900 on St Valentine’s Day. Appleyard’s College for girls, which is a boarding school for European wealthy off-spring (and the odd Australian rich girl) are going out for a picnic at the local geographical wonder, Hanging Rock. Only one girl is left behind; because of her stubborn refusal to learn a poem she has been punished.

Also like the book, the girls and their chaperones (the French teacher and Miss McCraw) as well as the drag driver Mr Hussey all arrive at the picnic spot. Unfortunately not all of them return. Three of the girls have gone missing as well as Miss McCraw. While we know that the girls have gone exploring the rock, we never really know what happened to Miss McCraw apart from the chubby Edith’s story of seeing the teacher in her pantaloons when she alone ran down the rock full of screams and hysteria.

The class before everything goes so wrong.

The film then shows just how deeply this event has affected everyone and the resultant hysteria and shock of the Victorian inhabitants of this ancient and savage country.

Weir maintains an air of eeriness that pervades the entire film. This combined with the odd nature of Hanging Rock and the haunting (and sometimes very obtrusive) music builds a state a languorous tension that slowly builds throughout the film. The cinematography is misty and foggy, high lighting the ephemeral look of the film and the images of the missing girls, especially the otherworldly Miranda, and swans heighten the feelings of a mythical aura.

The overall feeling of the girls outing is one of impending doom. Weir’s use of slowing the frame rate as we follow the girls (and the other people at the site) movements during the picnic and later as they climb the rock on their journey into oblivion; he also uses the slower frame rate when dealing with other emotional or crucial scenes.

Like the book, the film shows the heat of the summer and the sounds. Cicada’s buzzing while heat waves shimmer over the napping girls; the rising dust from horses and the drag (carriage) and the heavy uncomfortable clothes that everyone wore in the oppressive heat. It also showed the misty appearance of Hanging Rock itself, viewed from the distance and looking like some eerie and dangerous monolith waiting for victims to come close enough for it to devour.

After finally reading Joan Lindsay’s brilliant book that the film had been made of, I searched for a copy of the film. Luckily there was a three disc Deluxe Edition for sale via Amazon and I snatched it up. It has the Director’s cut; the original theatrical cut (made from a negative as the original theatrical cut could not be found) and a disc devoted to the making of and other documentary films about the movie.

I have not seen the director’s cut yet, but I did watch the theatrical cut and watch most of the special features. These were priceless bits of interviews with the cast and crew; they also included an interview with the author Joan Lindsay. It was very interesting to find that not a lot of people were pleased with Peter Weir’s decision to re-cut the film years after it had been made.

I also noted on Amazon that a lot of folks did not like the “new” director’s cut either. I will watch it, just to see what slant Weir adds or takes away from the original. Either way, it is easy to see why this has been declared Australia’s favourite film. The film has aged well and my only complaint ¬†was that the music was sometimes so loud that I could not easily hear the dialogue. This was actually solved by putting the subtitles on. I am sure that part of the problem lay with my laptops limited stereo capabilities though and not of the soundtrack.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a classic film that should be right at the top of “films to see before you shuffle off this mortal coil.” If you haven’t seen it, do rush out and find it, stream it, rent it, and try to get hold of the special features. It is definitely worth the time it takes to see what went on “way back then.”

Climbing to oblivion?

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: Walkabout to Nowhere

You know a book’s been around for a long time when it has been published most recently by “Vintage Books.” First published in 1967 the book hints at the fact that it is based on a true story. Just after the cast of characters in the front of the book Lindsay cheekily notes: “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred…” The end of the book has an extract from a Melbourne newspaper dated February 14, 1913 the anniversary of the picnic event. These two appearances in the book at the beginning and the end suggest that the book is in fact based on a true story.

The book was made into a pretty damn good film in 1975 (I guess I should review it as well) by Peter Weir and the film’s is just this side of brilliant. Moody, overbearing, suspenseful, foreboding and creepy as hell; but having said all that, the book is ten times better. I had seen the film first and fell in love with this slow-moving intense film. Today, I actually found a copy of the original book and decided to have a look. I power read this book in one setting (it is only 181 pages long)

As noted earlier, the story takes place in 1900 and it centres on a prestigious girls boarding school. The rich young ladies number 25 and have an overbearing Mrs Appleyard as Headmistress. The remainder of the staff are divvied between groundskeepers, household staff and tutors. On the 14th of February all the young ladies (but one, Sara Waybourne who is being punished) are allowed to attend Hanging Rock for a chaperoned picnic with two members of staff.

Once the girls arrive at the rock, they eat their picnic and then rest; except for three senior girls and one junior who decide to explore the towering rocks of Hanging Rock more closely. They pass another small group of picnickers and then start up the rock. By the end of the day, three of the girls are missing and one of the teaching staff has disappeared as well.

The rock’s in question.

It has been said that Ms Lindsay wrote this book in four weeks and that it originally had an additional chapter that actually explains what happened that day. It was removed at the editors request, thus making the book into an instant classic and wildly popular. Later the additional chapter was released (1987) *information courtesy of Wikipedia* and after reading the twelfth chapter, I agree with the editors initial decision; it added to the air of mystery of the story and helped to make it seem more real.

Four weeks!

Lindsay takes the incident at Hanging Rock as a catalyst that affects an entire group of people in ever-expanding waves (like a pebble after it is dropped in a pond will cause waves that reach the shore, no matter how wide the pond is) and having mostly disastrous consequences for most of those caught up in its “evil.” The book is much more in-depth in dealing with the characters and their thoughts, feelings and reactions.

It also shows how the event set in motion even more misery and tragedy than the actual happenings at Hanging Rock. For those that have only seen the movie, you will be surprised at how much deeper the book goes. I had pretty much fallen in love with the film and decided that it could never have been topped by the book.

I was incredibly, delightfully wrong.

While the book does not have the same level of intensity of the film, it has its own aura of foreboding and tension. The descriptive writing style of Joan Lindsay makes you feel the oppressive summer heat; the discomfort of all the clothes the young ladies have to endure in the name of decency and the dusty miserable conditions faced in the “bush” of the Outback in Australia.

I literally could not turn the pages fast enough (I know that I have said that before, but hand on heart, it’s true) and when the ending came to its inevitable conclusion I sighed the sigh of one disappointed by the tragic ending of a book I wanted to read forever.

This is a real 5 star book, that despite the sometimes almost archaic “couching” of its descriptive prose (which goes a long way to helping place the events in the time that they were set) and its old fashioned “colloquial” terms, speeds on like a road runner on amphetamines. If you haven’t read this book, it should be at the very top of your “to read” list.

On a final note, Ms Lindsay would never say whether the book had really been based on a true story; word on the street is that it is not. But if it ain’t, brother it should be.

Author Joan “we are not worthy” Lindsay.
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