Peter Weir’s 1975 mystery delivers beauty and chills in equal measure.
One of Australian cinema’s finest hours, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a bewitching, sun-soaked enigma. Peter Weir’s gloriously strange film is based on a novel by Joan Lindsay, who extraordinarily claimed that the plot came to her in a series of dreams. The tale of a quartet of disappearances on an idyllic St Valentine’s Day afternoon is a triumph of directorial distinction and ethereal elegance.
There’s no evidence that the events presented are anything but fiction yet Lindsay deliberately muddied the waters when she wrote, "Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves." Ahead of publication, the novel contained a bizarre solution to the disappearances but this final chapter was removed at the publisher’s behest (it was later published after Lindsay’s death).
Taking his lead from Lindsay, Weir gives the suggestion of a true story: Picnic at Hanging Rock begins with the words, "On Saturday February 14, 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without trace…"
The film’s opening moments see the Appleyard girls ensconced in the romance of the day, reading from their Valentine’s cards and looking forward to the picnic. Of particular note is the striking Miranda (Anne Lambert). A favoured student, she’s described by their French mistress, Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse), as a 'Botticelli angel' and there’s something too of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. It will be Miranda’s disappearance more than any other that haunts the film.
Their jaunt seems misguided from the outset: there’s the ominously named destination, the stark warnings from their Headmistress, Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the film’s lingering focus on a knife slicing slowly through a heart-shaped cake and the two watches which stop at dead on 12. Hanging Rock itself is described as an inactive volcano and Weir shows that the environment is a malevolent one, with sinister flora and fauna, and rocks that seem to throb, boil and watch over them.
When a small group of girls leave the picnic to explore, led by Miranda, the tragedy is set in motion. They surrender themselves to their apparently sentient surroundings – first laying down sacrificially and then entering into the rock face as if in a trance. A teacher goes missing in similarly strange circumstances, and there’s still more horror to come.
The cast and crew’s experience of Hanging Rock was comparably supernatural: a storm encircled the rock as they filmed but they remained untouched at its centre, equipment went missing, and watches really did stop. The building used as Appleyard College had its own terrific atmosphere: Martindale Hall is a ninetenth-century manor house marooned in the middle of the bush, built for love and lost in a gambling game.
Eccentricity abounded on set: the book’s author Joan Lindsay turned up to visit and movingly spoke to the cast as if they were the characters. Rachel Roberts was said by many to have inhabited the headmistress 24 hours a day. She remained deliberately aloof, refusing to befriend those who played the schoolgirls. Anne Lambert has described her as a 'dragon' who liked to drink and who on one occasion stripped bare and offered herself up to the male contingent.
Picnic at Hanging Rock would prove enormously influential – Miranda is the original Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks: beautiful, beloved and doomed. Picnic is also discernible in the magic of Heavenly Creatures and the mystery of The Virgin Suicides.
The film’s dream-like quality was in part achieved by DP Russell Boyd sporadically draping a bridal veil over the lens. It’s further transported into the realms of the fantastic by mirage-like imagery, near-imperceptible slow motion and a panpipe score.
Picnic on Hanging Rock is serenely sinister; it’s a film with all the hallmarks of a ravishing dream that’s ultimately revealed as a seductive nightmare. A refusal to provide answers ensures an enduring fascination. In Weir’s own words, "It is a mystery without a solution and that’s what will keep it alive."