Strange things happen in the middle of nowhere.
Picnic At Hanging Rock tells the story of a girl’s college in the Australian outback, forever changed by the events of Valentine’s Day 1900. Based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, three girls and a teacher go missing on a picnic to a nearby rock. Efforts to find them and the mysterious nature of their disappearance have a far-reaching effect on the local community.
It is a slow film but one with a thread of tension running through it. The nature is awe-inspiring- especially the sheer scale of the titular Hanging Rock. The panpipe music by Gheorghe Zamfir that accompanies the landscapes is used to emphasise their hypnotic beauty. In contrast, ethereal piano music is used to accompany the girls (in particular Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5). Despite the peaceful soundtrack, it is difficult to relax while watching. Every few minutes, there is another tug at the string. The watch that stops working, the loud ticking clock on the headmistress’s office wall, the trancelike effects of the heat, ants crawling over hands…. All these elements come together to create a tense yet beautiful, painterly film.
The missing angels
Out of those who go missing, the film focusses on Miranda. She is deemed the most beautiful by the film and becomes a symbol of mesmerising angelic purity. This is first spelt out to the viewer early on. The French mistress, looking up from an art book as Miranda turns to go up to the rock, remarks that she now realises that Miranda is a Botticelli angel.
In addition, Sara is in love with Miranda and idolises her. The two girls are completely different in both appearance and character. Blond, outgoing and protected Miranda is the opposite to the dark haired, maligned and orphaned Sara. Sara writes a poem about her and is the most distraught when Miranda goes missing. Later on, Michael, a young man from England visiting his relatives, starts to have visions of Miranda. The incident with the rock profoundly changes him. He falls in love with her but is also plagued by guilt that he could not do more to find the girls. Occasionally, all this symbolism does come across a bit heavy handed- such as the repeated use of a lone white swan to represent Miranda.
Given the ‘Botticelli angel’ connection referred to directly in the film, it is no surprise that much of the imagery of the girls on screen is inspired by Renaissance/Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Popular subjects for these works were mythical or literary female characters. Many such paintings show young women with long flowing hair and robes surrounded by nature. Perhaps the best example to match the film is John William Waterhouse’s first Ophelia (1889).
Although not responsible for the disappearance, the school’s draconian headmistress is also depicted as an instigator of tragedy in the film. She is already portrayed as controlling in early scenes, where she picks on Sara and prevents her going on the picnic out of spite. The headmistress makes Sara learn famous verses off by heart, yet sneers in disbelief when Sara says she writes poetry. She believes that a lowly orphan can’t possibly write anything good.
Reasons for her dislike of Sara become more apparent as the film progresses. When the girls are not found immediately, worried parents start withdrawing their children from the next semester. The headmistress frets over the future lack of school funds and the tarnished image. She projects this onto Sara, who represents a burden on the establishment- her guardian is behind on her tuition payments. The heavy tick of the clock in the headmistress’s office can be seen as both a reminder of the time the girls have been missing, and as a fuse for her deteriorating mental state. Rachel Roberts plays the headmistress very well. The character is unlikable, yet she still manages to inject some sympathy into her drunken breakdown.
Unsurprisingly the hostility and dangers of the outback are also emphasised. The girls are repeatedly warned to beware of poisonous ants and venomous snakes. The way shots of birds and lizards are used makes it seem like they are glaring at the unwelcome humans who venture up the rock. You can feel the heat and taste the dust as you watch the characters succumb to the elements. Later on, the school gardener shows one of the servants a plant ‘that moves’ when touched (Mimosa Pudica). This reminds us of that those on the rock are at the mercy of the mysterious powers of nature. It suggests that there are things that humans cannot fully comprehend and that nature deserves to be treated with respect and caution.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a hypnotic and visually stunning film. It raises some interesting questions about human weaknesses and the mysterious power of nature. However, the symbolism and foreshadowing sometimes feels a little heavy-handed and obvious.
This review was based on the Director’s Cut edition, which is widely available on DVD.
If you like Picnic At Hanging Rock, you may also like: Et Mourir de Plaisir (France, 1960)