Saturday, March 9, 2013

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

          Although Australian director Peter Weir had been working steadily on feature and TV projects in his homeland since the late ’60s, he first scored worldwide acclaim with this evocative literary adaptation, which is often mistaken for a depiction of a real historical incident. Novelist Joan Lindsay, who wrote the book upon which the film is based, has given so many cryptic answers about the inspiration for his story that some interested parties have tried to prove that three girls from a private college (and one of their adult caretakers) really disappeared in 1900 while exploring Hanging Rock, a massive geological formation in South Australia. As written by Cliff Green, this film adaptation fuels the speculative fire by presenting Lindsay’s narrative like a true-life unsolved mystery. Moreover, Weir casts a beguiling spell by exploring the multilayered psychological impact of the disappearances on people throughout the area containing both the college and Hanging Rock. (The geological formation, at least, is real.)
          The film reveals characterization through crisis. Stern headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) frays when the careful order of her school dissipates; fragile orphan Sara (Margaret Nelson) crumbles after the loss of a fellow student with whom she was infatuated; and a wealthy young man, Tom (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), becomes obsessed with finding the missing girls. Lingering over all of these characters is the specter of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), the leader of the group that went missing. An ethereal beauty, she represents a life force whose loss the world cannot abide. This is all very heady stuff, and Picnic at Hanging Rock is perhaps most successful as a conversation piece, since it raises all sorts of provocative questions about what happens when the lives we build for ourselves get shaken by unforeseeable events.
          Furthermore, Weir’s filmmaking is unassailably tasteful, with eerie pan-flute melodies floating over gossamer images of beautiful girls in white-linen dresses wandering through the volcanic outcroppings of Hanging Rock. Yet after the memorable first half-hour, which depicts the prelude to the disappearances and the actual Hanging Rock excursion, the narrative becomes muddy and turgid. Weir and his collaborators seem indecisive about which characters should be most prominent, and Weir vacillates between flights of dreamlike fancy and hard-edged vignettes of character-driven realism. The movie is also painfully humorless, so the middle stretch is quite tedious. Things cohere bit more during the finale, when viewers are finally shown the lasting impact of the disappearances, although it’s frustrating that certain climactic events are dismissed in a closing voiceover instead of being depicted onscreen. All in all, Picnic at Hanging Rock is filled with interesting insights, moments, and textures, but its restraint is stifling.
          Still, the picture helped Weir get noticed as a filmmaker of unusual sensitivity, so just a few years later, he directed his first Hollywood movie, the similarly moody The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). Six Oscar nominations later (so far), Weir is firmly entrenched as one of the world’s most respected cinematic storytellers.

Picnic at Hanging Rock: FUNKY


Will Errickson said...

I remember being excited to see this, saw it, now remember *nothing* of it.

Groggy Dundee said...

I didn't like Hanging Rock much the first time I saw it, but it's definitely grown on me through several rewatches. Its opacity is maddening yet fascinating at the same time.

I'll be the spoiled sport and point out that Hanging Rock isn't actually based on a true story.

Unknown said...

I hate to burst your bubble,but the Lindsay novel was pure fiction. There was no real life event upon which this book or film was based.

Having said that, you have to visit Hanging Rock for yourself, it is a deeply spooky place. I don't know how much i was affected by the film, but I do know that the local Indigenous people believe spirits guard the Rock, and sometimes it feels like that when you are there!

By Peter Hanson said...

Thanks very much to the readers who called me on this one. I was 100% snookered by the faux-reality trappings of the movie and its reputation. Happily, I've corrected and updated my review...

Cindylover1969 said...

The original manuscript did end with an explanation, later published by itself as "The Secret Of Hanging Rock." It involves people turning into lizards.

Kyría Ioánna said...

The author is Joan Lindsay, not John. You misgendered her.

The promotion of this film was remarkable how they snookered pretty much everybody at first into believing it was a true story. In 1975 you couldn't just hop on the internet to check local records in Australia, but it was remarkable how easily people swallowed that without anyone questioning it. Remarkable how to this day some people still have the impression it was a true story!

"An ethereal beauty, she represents a life force whose loss the world cannot abide." — This sums up the film better than any other review I've seen.

I love this film for its magic at telling a story through atmosphere alone.

By Peter Hanson said...

Thanks for spotting the error, which has been fixed. Apologies to the memory of the estimable Lady Lindsay.