Picnic At Hanging Rock

Picnic At Hanging Rock

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Valentine's Day, 1900. An upper class English-style girls' school in the state of Victoria, Australia, organises a day trip to Hanging Rock, a spectacular geological feature near Mount Macedon. After eating cake and resting in the shade, some of the girls, led by the enigmatic Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), receive permission to climb the rock. A teacher belatedly accompanies them. Later, one returns screaming in terror. The teacher and some of the girls have disappeared.

Adapted from the book by Joan Lindsay, Picnic At Hanging Rock is widely assumed to be a true story, though in fact that's not the case. It's a masterpiece of literary craftsmanship which eschews familiar narrative structures to present us with something much more like real life, less straightforwardly satisfying, powerful precisely because it leaves us feeling frustrated. Peter Weir's graceful film perfectly captures this spirit. Though it's heavy-handed in places, this doesn't detract from the sense of mystery it creates, nor from its magical atmosphere which draws on the traditions of aboriginal Australia and the Dreamtime, highlighting the inter-cultural tensions at the country's heart.

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There is also tension between the 19th century ideal of girlhood and the real experience of adolescence, not to mention womanhood, cooped up in a big schoolhouse far from anywhere. An atmosphere of heightened sensuality prevails and there are hints early on that two of the (all female) teachers are having an affair. Much of the film centres around Sara (Margaret Nelson), an orphaned girl who has passionate feelings for Miranda. Sara doesn't get to go on the fateful trip and there are suggestions that she's been kept back partly because the headmistress believes their friendship is too intense. Miranda has long hinted to Sara that she knows "a lot of secrets", and has warned her that she'll be leaving soon, but the disappearance devastates the lonely girl left behind.

Where do the girls go? Lindsay wrote a final chapter which was left out of the book upon publication; likewise Weir filmed it but left it out of his final cut (it can be found on some versions of the DVD). Suffice to say that it doesn't fully solve anything and it might, in fact, be seen as little more than a dream - as, indeed, the whole film is dreamlike. Even without it, there are odd hints that the girls and their teacher have somehow stepped beyond their stifling world and into the future. This is a film that seems somehow subtly different every time you watch it, full of tantalising possibilities.

Partly because it was Australia's first big international film, because it's beautiful and because its heroines are culturally remote schoolgirls in floaty white dresses, Picnic At Hanging Rock is sometimes now perceived as being stuffy and irrelevant to what's happening in the country today. Those who think that way would do well to give it a chance. Its story is a timeless one, much more complex than it first appears, and the issues it deftly explores have lost none of their relevance. They have simply become harder to see, obscured by the currents of modernity. Miranda may have disappeared, but nobody who sees this film can forget her.

Reviewed on: 18 Mar 2009
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A group of schoolgirls and their teachers mysteriously disappear whilst visiting Hanging Rock.
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Director: Peter Weir

Writer: Cliff Green, based on the book by Joan Lindsay.

Starring: Anne-Louise Lambert, Margaret Nelson, Rachel Roberts, Christine Schuler, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Karen Robson

Year: 1975

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Australia

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