A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an unstable mix of a film, playing on, among other things, themes of sexual repression, homoerotic attraction, colonialism, and the curious draw of geological anomalies: Hanging Rock is to the characters in the film as Devil's Tower is to Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) or Sedona is to contemporary New Agers. We never learn how two schoolgirls and a teacher disappeared on their visit to the volcanic outcropping, but it doesn't much matter. What's clear is that the characters are misfits in both place and time, Australia in 1900. As one of the disappeared girls, Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), says, "Everything begins and ends in the right time and place." Like the hoopskirted women and top-hatted men in the wilds of New Zealand in Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), these schoolgirls are uncomfortably muffled against the reality of an Australian summer, to the point that, when they set out for the picnic, they are prevented from even removing their gloves until they have left the village of Woodend, their outpost of civilization. So the three girls who set out on their rebellious adventure shock a fourth, the whining, conventional Edith (Christine Schuler), when they dare to remove their shoes and stockings and proceed barefoot. Edith, who decides to leave the group, will later report that when she met Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray), who followed the girls' path, the teacher was not wearing a skirt. And when one of the girls, Irma (Karen Robson), is found alive but with no memory of what happened, she has mysteriously lost her corset. Several other stories, including the persecution by the headmistress (Rachel Roberts) of the misfit student Sara (Margaret Nelson), are interwoven with the principal incident. But for all its inconclusive narrative and sometimes clashing themes, the movie works by creating a complex symbolic texture. Peter Weir and screenwriter Cliff Green, adapting Joan Lindsay's novel (which was initially thought to be non-fiction), craft a story that tantalizes without frustrating. (Lindsay drafted but didn't publish a chapter with a sci-fi solution involving time warps; her editor was smart to excise it, and Weir and Green were wise to ignore it.)