Something magnetic

Karen Robson on the mysterious power of Picnic At Hanging Rock

by Jennie Kermode

Picnic At Hanging Rock
Picnic At Hanging Rock

Here at Eye For Film we deal mostly in what’s new – on the festival circuit, at the box office or on streaming networks – so it’s not often that the opportunity arises to discuss a classic. Very few films in the history of cinema have had the impact of Peter Weir’s 1975 mystery Picnic At Hanging Rock. The story of a disappearance and the effect it has on those who remain, it’s based, of course, on the book by Joan Lindsay, whose inspirations have themselves always been obscure, but may be rooted in real disappearances which took place at the rock around 1900. In the film, Karen Robson played Irma, the only one of the party of four who venture up the rock to be found. In the course of our conversation she raised another mystery – the unknown fate of one of its stars – and shared her memories of the shoot, as well as musing on how it has affected her life since.

Karen Robson as Irma in Picnic At Hanging Rock
Karen Robson as Irma in Picnic At Hanging Rock

One tries not to be too personal in interviews, but I feel obliged to open by confessing that this is my favourite film, and that though I watch around 600 new ones every year, nothing else has ever come close to it.

“It's wonderful,” she says, smiling. “I’ve only ever been in one film but it's one that means a lot to a lot of people.”

I mention that I spoke to John Jarrett about it a few years ago, and that he said that when it was being made, nobody involved had any idea that it was going to be so important.

“Not at all, not at all. I mean, it was a time when there weren't that many feature films being made in Australia, and certainly nothing like this, you know, so different from anything else. Afterwards there were other films, like The Getting Of Wisdom and My Brilliant Career, that focused on women. The only film I can think of before that even had a woman type role was Caddie, which Helen Morse was in, who played the French teacher.”

Did she read the book before getting involved?

The picnic begins
The picnic begins

“I did read the book, but only because it was given to me as part of the process of coming in to read for the film and so on. So I didn't know the book myself beforehand, but I definitely read the book, and the book is very close to the film, I think, in many ways.”

I understand that Joan Lindsay visited the set during filming.

“She did, but we were rather shy. I mean, I was 17 years old at the time. I think Anne-Louise Lambert, who played Miranda, did speak with her and had a real connection with her. We just saw her as a rather delicate older woman, you know, but we knew who she was. And she was also part of the Lindsay family, which was a very artistic family in Victoria, Australia, so she had an aura around her.I think I was frightened to talk to her.”

So how did she, as an unknown, come to take on the role of Irma?

“Well, that's a rather strange story, actually. I had just left high school and I just had my graduation. In fact, on the very day of the graduation I was part of a group of girls who were racing around being silly in the suburbs, where I lived, and we came across these two gentlemen who were sitting at a coffee shop. And we were squirting them with water pistols and stuff like that, and being really stupid. And then we got in talking to them, and it turned out that one of them lived virtually across the street from me.

"Look! Way up there in the sky."
"Look! Way up there in the sky."

“His name was Martin Sharp, and he was a pretty famous pop artist. He lived in the Pheasantry, in London, with Eric Clapton. He'd done posters for Bob Dylan. Anyway, he was a pretty famous artist who had moved back to Australia, and he and I became friendly. And he said, ‘You know, there’s this film. You are just like the girl in the book. You should go and read for it.’ And I said ‘Well, I'm not really an actress, you know.’ I'd just been in school plays, and my mum was an actress a bit. And so I went, and I read for it, and then I did a screen test in the old fashioned way.”

There’s a lot of ambiguity to Irma, the only person who might know what happened on the rock that day. I ask Karen if she played her as an amnesiac or as somebody keeping a secret.

“I think that I played her as someone who had undergone some kind of trauma and was suppressing the memory. And that it came back to her really only in the gym when she was attacked by the girls and said she didn't want to face it. But I sort of embrace the mystery. I never really admitted to myself or even played out in my mind what exactly had happened – just something traumatic, you know?”

A toast to St Valentine
A toast to St Valentine

She’s an interesting character to me because she’s at the centre of the story but at the same time she’s an outsider, never quite fitting in anywhere. Was that something which Karen was conscious of at the time?

“Probably not in the way you explained it, but I’d definitely say that she was different to the other girls. I think the most interesting character is Sara, the girl who was left behind at the school, who is in love with Miranda. I mean, that character is fascinating, and the actress who played her [Margaret Nelson] was such a great actress. And, you know, funnily enough with all the fame that the film has had, nobody has ever been able to find her. People have interviewed just about all the other people in the film but nobody's ever located her.”

We discuss the experience of being on set, and how overwhelming it was for a newcomer to the industry.

“I probably was the most inexperienced,” she says. “The others were mostly trained actors or had done things before. It was really exciting and really quite magical. The whole experience was fabulous, frankly. And we didn't know it'd be famous or anything, we just thought it was an incredibly wonderful thing to be part of. Anne-Louise Lambert had done quite a few things and she was actually really well known because she was in a commercial for soft drinks, as well as the acting and other things. Most of the girls who had significant roles had had acted before. We all lived in one house under the protection of Patricia Lovell, who was the producer who found the book originally. She was a wonderful woman who had been a television personality, and one of her daughters, Jenny Lovell, was in the film.

The ascent
The ascent

“It’s funny, because now I know so much more about filmmaking, but then it was all so new to me. I think I wasn't so conscious of all the efforts that the crew were putting in, because I was concentrating on what my purpose was. I don't know whether it was just because of the script or the story or whatever, but it really had an aura about it. One thing that was interesting was the artist I mentioned, Martin Sharp, became a visual consultant to the film. He was very friendly with Peter Weir. And I remember that he was walking around the rock, finding special parts of the rock which looked like faces so the cinematographer could have them, and I think they're in the film.

“It was a bit spooky, actually, especially as it got close to being dark, you know? They were making noise, rushing to finish everything, but as it started to get dark and we had to go walk down, it was like, ‘Whoa, I'm glad we're leaving now.’”

Did she interact much with the crew?

“We were pretty separate. I think they worried about all us young girls. The crew at that time was very male, as I recall. They were incredibly sweet to us. And I do remember Russell Boyd, the cinematographer, being a very kind guy, particularly. We were incredibly fortunate in the sense that he was the cinematographer and the camera operator was John Seale, both of whom subsequently won Academy Awards. It was one of those early crews in what became the Australian film industry. Those people went to great heights later.”

A dream within a dream
A dream within a dream

She takes a sip of coffee. “I was very young at the time. To me, then, Peter Weir seemed old. When I now look back and see how old he was...” She laughs. “Anyway, he had a very good acting exercise that he embarked on that really helped me. We didn’t rehearse the scene but we did this thing with nursery rhymes where we were going ‘Oranges and lemons, the bells of St Clemens’ and ‘Chop off his head!’ and it was going round and around, and the girls were going round and around and building up like a fever pitch. It helped me emotionally to get into the mood. He was clever.”

What was it like afterwards, once the film started to take off and develop a reputation?

“Immediately afterwards it was quite surreal, really. I did the film in like, February and then I got into university, because as I said, I’d just left school The school year in Australia ends in December and I did this on February. And then I got into university. I didn’t know what I was doing but I was quite academically inclined so I thought, well, I'll go to university and I'll see what happens. And it was amazing. In Australia, particularly, there was a lot of publicity around it. I remember doing a cover for a woman's magazine with Helen, and all sorts of things, and it was just surreal.

"Miranda knows lots of things other people don't know. Secrets. She knew she wouldn't come back."
"Miranda knows lots of things other people don't know. Secrets. She knew she wouldn't come back."

“I sort of thought maybe I should be an actor, and I got an agent, and then I tried out for one or two things. And then I thought, ‘You know what, I'm not sure this is really for me,’ and that was that. But what's so interesting is that it's just followed me around the world forever. With the internet, of course, people have gotten in contact with me, because I'm a lawyer and it's very easy to find me on the internet. They're super fans, my daughter calls them, from all over the world. There's a man in Rome who is in contact with everybody in the film, and who has photos and things signed by everybody. He sent me photos of the whole wall of his apartment.

“A number of people in the industry, like you, love the film. I speak in conferences about legal issues and things, and this one lawyer in Canada, who is a big fan, never fails to introduce me as the girl from the film. I ask ‘You still really like it, do you?’ and he goes ‘Oh, I love it!’

“For a long time, I didn't put it in my bio, but now I fully embrace it, to the extent that I have the Italian poster from the film at my office. Also, my daughter [Tara Violet Niami] loves the film, and she became a cinematographer. She and her friends just loved the film so much. It seemed like a renaissance. These were mostly young women all around the world. There was just something about the film.”

A new Blu-ray edition of Picnic At Hanging Rock will be available from Monday 1 May 2023.

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