Criterion Corner: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) - Reviewed

Andrew reviews the haunting mystery classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

It goes without saying Australian film director Peter Weir is one of the great directors of our generation.  Known for Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show, the chameleonic and gifted auteur was nominated six times for an Academy Award ranging from writing, directing or producing.  From historical period pieces to action thrillers and introspective science fiction oriented character studies, Weir’s closest competitor is arguably Ang Lee for his own diverse approach to cinema.  And yet like Roman Polanski, Weir’s debatable finest hour arrived early in his career with the haunting, beguiling and confounding period piece, Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Based upon the novel by Joan Lindsay, the exceedingly simple but relentlessly fascinating premise of an all girls’ private school in 1900 Victoria, Australia whose tranquil existence is shaken by the inexplicable disappearance of several schoolgirls and a teacher during a picnic at the titular Hanging Rock remains one of the most impenetrable mysteries of cinema since Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.  Unlike Resnais’ 1961 in-flux head scratcher, Picnic at Hanging Rock is grounded in formal realism but tinged with fleeting, dreamlike moments with the power of a hypnotic trance.  With such distinguished Australian classics as Wake in Fright and Walkabout marking the birth of mainstream Australian cinema, it’s curious to note the most beloved film of 1970s Australian filmmaking is arguably Weir’s elegant, scary and finally poignant mystery. 

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Aided by breathtaking cinematography by Russell Boyd and a haunting soundtrack consisting of Romanian panpipe pieces, samples of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Tchaikovsky, this is probably the only female-driven period drama with heavy overtones of science fiction horror and an implacable otherworldliness.  It has the setting of a classical costumed theater piece but the tonality of an outer space thriller with many implications but no concrete conclusions as to the girls’ whereabouts.  

What’s more, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which this has a startling amount in common with, Picnic at Hanging Rock derives its power not from the answers it doesn’t provide but the questions it poses.  Rather than solve the mystery, Picnic at Hanging Rock instead ruminates on the unresolved impact it has on the community, the school’s reputation and our own feelings about the matter.  It’s also debatably a meditation on budding sexuality and romantic longing, with many close ups of the beautiful schoolgirls’ faces which are subverted by claustrophobic mountain rock surroundings.  This is one of the rare films where the film’s sound design, brilliantly rendered in 5.1 stereophonic sound, is as integral to the pure experience as the images.  Some of the most unsettling sequences consist almost entirely of low bass rumbles and soft, ambient wind, an effect lost on television only viewing.

With Hanging Rock, you can see the genesis of Weir’s own thematic obsessions and penchant for science fiction as a means to try and ponder our world’s still unsolved mysteries.  Take for instance his 1993 drama Fearless about a man who has a near death experience and finds the inexplicable psychological trauma to be transformative to his personality and outlook on life.  Then there’s The Truman Show where our hero finds himself living in a daily sitcom before becoming a play on man’s connection with God himself and his own place in the world.  All three of these films concern a surreal, life altering event and the cumulative impact it has on everyone around them.  

What separates Hanging Rock from Weir’s subsequent dealings with the unknown is that even after everything, it still refuses to provide an answer.  Where Fearless and The Truman Show had closure, Hanging Rock remains open to interpretation to this day and some viewers, much like the characters, will emerge frustration they did not get an explanation.  As with the novel, Weir’s interests aren’t in answering the questions but in trying to understand the hypnotic pull such an unresolved inquiry presents to all who encounter it.  Full of achingly sad beauty, fine performances across the board and astute direction from a young auteur who only four films into his career already attained the reputation of a master, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the greatest films ever made about the unknowable in a modern world we think we know and understand.  


- Andrew Kotwicki