Forty years after Peter Weir stunned the world with his tale of missing girls in the bush, the unforgettable drama remains a mystifying experience. Here, we return to the scene of one of most important movies in Australian history.
Dave Crewe

SBS Film
4 Jun 2015 - 4:31 PM  UPDATED 4 Jun 2015 - 4:40 PM

Why It’s Important

If you were to pick the most influential Australian film of all time, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) would be among the top contenders. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t launch the Australian New Wave of cinema (an achievement variously credited to 1971’s Wake in Fright or Walkabout), but it was certainly the first film of that movement to combine critical acclaim with box office success.

Per Barry Humphries, Peter Weir’s adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel is about “nice girls in white dresses vanishing into rocks”. St Valentine’s Day 1900 sees three students and one teacher from the prestigious all-girls’ Appleyard College vanish on an excursion to Hanging Rock, a geological formation not far from Melbourne. One of the students is found, the others are not. The disappearance remains unexplained, opening up fault lines in the community, exacerbating insecurities and instigating further tragedy.

Directed by Weir with languid grace, Picnic at Hanging Rock earned critical plaudits upon release; it’s still regarded as one of Australia’s greatest films. The movie’s steadfast refusal to provide answers to its mysteries frustrated America audiences; as Weir noted in a 2005 interview, “We could not get a release... One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he’d wasted two hours of his life.” But a $5 million-plus gross at the local box office proved that Australian audiences were ready to embrace the burgeoning Australian film industry.

What’s It Really About?

Enigmatic Ambiguity

Picnic at Hanging Rock is steeped in mystery. The scene in which the girls disappear into the Rock, in particular, is powerfully evocative and unabashedly enigmatic. Russell Boyd’s ethereal, timeless cinematography creates a dreamy ambiance, while the score – a combination of pan pipes, classical music and ominous rumbling – balances the oneiric with ambiguous menace. The girls drift into a somnolent haze then wander, as though in a dream, into oblivion. The prevailing sense is unknowable, unearthly, yet utterly enchanting.

This aura of ambiguity is integral to the film’s appeal. As Ed Roginski noted in his 1979 review: “Questions are the essence of this film.” One such question concerns whether or not the original story is based on real events. Lindsay’s novel opens with this playful preface: “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” She took a similar view on the central question regarding the cause of the disappearance, arguing: “Everyone who has enjoyed my book or read it, they really have to work it out for themselves… you’ll all have to work out what you think is true for you, because truth is everything to me.”

The inscrutability of Picnic at Hanging Rock has inspired reams of analysis, both academic and decidedly less so. (In the latter category, Yvonne Rousseau’s 1980 book The Murders at Hanging Rock provided five possible explanations for true Hanging Rock tragics.) Yet Lindsay’s original manuscript wasn’t as ambiguous, including a since-omitted chapter that provides insight into the particulars of Hanging Rock’s mystical machinations – insight that involves time warps, portals and lizard transformations. (No wonder publisher John Taylor introduced it as “the previously invisible foundation stone on whose absence the Australian film industry built itself.” It’s hard to imagine such a film concluding with such a scene inspiring the Australian New Wave!)

Budding Sexuality

The absence at the heart of Picnic at Hanging Rock is catnip for film theorists looking to draw meaning from the film, so it comes as no surprise that many popular interpretations on the film centre on seemingly every film academic’s favourite theme: sex.

All that tossing around of terms like ‘vaginal’ and ‘phallic’ makes a whole of sense in this case; while in and around Hanging Rock the camera regularly peers up at masculine, yes, phallic, monoliths or gazes through stony, yes, vaginal, crevices. The film opens with Appleyard’s students – invariably dressed in virginal white – perusing love letters. (It is Valentine’s Day, remember). Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) – regularly framed as an object of desire (“a Botticelli angel”) and ultimately consumed by the Rock – encourages roommate Sara (Margaret Nelson) to find someone else to love as she “won’t be here much longer”.

That sort of foreshadowing – the conflation of impending doom and ephemeral eroticism – lingers throughout Picnic at Hanging Rock’s first act. One reading, then, is that the girls’ disappearance operates a metaphor for losing one’s virginity, something that consumes their perceived ‘innocence,’ something that is anticipated and dreaded in equal measure.

This isn’t entirely satisfactory, providing little insight into the reaction to the girls’ disappearance in the wider community while failing to account for the implied romantic bond between Miranda and Sara. Sara ultimately commits suicide in the wake of both Miranda’s disappearance and her victimisation at the hands of the school’s headmistress (Rachel Roberts), suggesting the importance of their connection. (Though Stephanie Gauper, for one, argues that mateship overshadows sexuality – heterosexual or homosexual – in Weir’s films, dismissing the apparent lesbian subtext.)

If Picnic at Hanging Rock is a representation of nascent sexuality, then it’s more complex than a simple transactional view of virginity, but rather a portrayal that allows for sex as beautiful, mysterious, difficult, and fluid.

English Colonialisation of Australia

The date of Picnic at Hanging Rock’s dramatic events is not accidental. St Valentine’s Day links to the aforementioned theme of budding sexuality. (It’s also the date of Lindsay’s wedding.) 1900 sets the events shortly before the foundation of the Federation of Australia, and therefore, with the country squarely under English rule. This ties directly into one of the most common readings of the film: that it represents, per Jim Tate, a “dramatic clash between the refinement of European culture and the uncouth power of the bush”.

That clash is represented through various dichotomies throughout the film: the contrast between civil Englishman Michael (Dominic Guard) and vulgar valet Albert (John Jarratt, in one of his earliest roles); or the conflict between the pompous Mrs Appleyard and the meek Sara,  who, before her suicide, is strapped to a wall to “improve her posture”; and of course, there’s the juxtaposition between the lush, oh-so-English grounds of Appleyard College and the untamed wilderness that contains Hanging Rock, along with “venomous snakes and poisonous ants”.

Even time seems to advance differently in these two worlds. When the excursion arrives at Hanging Rock, the rigid schedule of the school gives way to a space where watches inexplicably stop and time flows like thick syrup. A conversation in the buggy on the way suggests the underlying symbolism; when informed that the Hanging Rock is a million years old, a student reflects that it must have been “waiting here just for us”.

The inexplicable mysticism of the Hanging Rock represents more than simply an uncouth Australia, but the Australia before English settlement. An Australia belonging to its Indigenous inhabitants. Not an Australia “waiting” for the English Empire to claim it, but a rich country with its own culture and beliefs. A country with its own time and of its own time: the Dreamtime. The film begins, after all, with an Edgar Allan Poe poem about dreams read over a shot of Appleyard College, its elegant architecture and verdant yards portrayed as a foreign body in a natural landscape. The College – and by extension, the Commonwealth – is inherently unnatural, and the events that follow a natural consequence of its unwelcome invasion.

What to Watch Next

Peter Weir’s following feature, The Last Wave (1977), opens with a similar scene to that described above, albeit in a contemporary setting. The film reveals a schoolyard in the outback – its green lawns similarly starkly contrast with the desert surrounds – before it is assaulted by a ferocious storm from a clear blue sky. Where Picnic at Hanging Rock keeps its Aboriginal themes as subtext, The Last Wave draws them to the surface, telling the story of a city lawyer who begins to see premonitions after he’s drawn into a local tribal conflict. It’s a poignant companion piece to Picnic at Hanging Rock, possessing the same artistry and similar themes. Weir’s first feature, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), is instructive too, demonstrating that his oh-so-Australian parched pastoral palette (influenced by the Heidelberg school of oil painting, especially Frederick McCubbin) was already fully formed prior to Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Beyond Weir’s back catalogue, it’s also worth watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterful L’Avventura (1960). It shares with Weir’s film an unexplained disappearance and a lingering sense of ennui. It’s hard to imagine that Picnic at Hanging Rock wasn’t, at least in part, influenced by this arthouse classic. From the decidedly less prestigious end of cinema, there’s Wolf Creek (2005). Granted, by the time John Jarratt is hunting down teenagers while spouting Crocodile Dundee lines, the film doesn’t have much in common with Picnic at Hanging Rock beyond sharing an actor. But the film’s first act – a journey into the fringes of the Australian outback – is deeply indebted to Weir’s film, even down to the unaccountably inoperative clocks.

For reading material the obvious choice is Joan Lindsay’s original novel. It’s a wonderful read, though it should be pointed that screenwriter Cliff Green’s adaptation is remarkably faithful, regularly appropriating lines of dialogue wholesale. And if you want some insight into how Picnic at Hanging Rock captured the nation’s imagination, you could always try to hunt down the aforementioned Murders at Hanging Rock.

Watch the trailer for Picnic at Hannging Rock below:


Picnic At Hanging Rock is screened every year around Valentine's Day at Hanging Rock in the Macedon Ranges.