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?