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Story of Film - November 2013
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,Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock

The first important salvo in Australia's revolutionary wave of films in the 1970s, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) offers a distinctly elegant and idiosyncratic twist on the popular "puzzle" films which had been sweeping through art houses for the past decade, primarily from Europe. A potent antidote to the cut-and-dried morality of Hollywood, these films were the perfect calling cards for directors looking to distinguish themselves through a new cinematic language, including such influential names as Alain Resnais with Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Michelangelo Antonioni with Blow-Up (1966) and L'avventura (1960).

What sets Picnic at Hanging Rock apart from its predecessors is its strong literary pedigree and a playful disconnect between its languid period setting and the discordant, ultimately open-ended mystery which forms its narrative center. On the first Valentine's Day of the 20th Century, several female students at an outback boarding school, Appleyard College of Young Ladies, embark on a picnic to a nearby craggy, mountainous terrain. Three of the girls and their math teacher who set off alone seem to be compelled by a primal force towards the largest, most remote rock in the area and disappear without a trace, while a fourth girl returns in a largely incoherent panic when she's discovered by an inquisitive male student. The incident soon proves to be the undoing of the school whose strict headmistress (Rachel Roberts) reacts with increasing brutality and irrationality.

Sydney-born filmmaker Peter Weir immediately caught the attention of audiences and critics in 1975 with this film, adapted from a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay which promoted itself as being based on fact-- though not surprisingly, it was soon revealed as a complete work of fiction. After several years of public pressure and perhaps inspired by a recent literary addition by Anthony Burgess to A Clockwork Orange, Lindsay reissued her equally enigmatic novel with an additional chapter in which she devised a cosmic, interdimensional explanation for the girls' disappearance which satisfied very few. Wisely, Weir and screenwriter Cliff Green adhered to the novel's initial construction, with gorgeous honey-blonde Miranda (The Draughtsman's Contract's [1982] Anne-Louise Lambert), the most popular of the lost girls captivating viewers as an adolescent portrayed as too otherworldly to survive to adulthood. Not surprisingly, her brief but iconic appearances became the primary visual focus of the film's marketing to this day. The deliberate blurring of fiction and fact became an important tool in the film right from its opening narrative text, a provocative bit of audience tweaking that can easily be seen as a forerunner to today's faux-reality narratives which culminated in the cinematic likes of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Catfish (2010).

Picnic at Hanging Rock also stands as the second and easily the sunniest entry in Weir's quartet of major Australian films, following 1974's bizarre horror satire The Cars That Ate Paris and succeeded by the mystical apocalypse of 1977's The Last Wave and his first major commercial success, 1981's Gallipoli, a fact-based war classic released internationally by Paramount. These films were largely made possible by the creation of the South Australian Film Corporation in 1973, the first state-run film company. The lure of Hollywood resulted in a remarkable fusion as Weir's sociological approach was applied to more star-powered efforts as The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), Fearless (1993), the widely misunderstood The Mosquito Coast (1986), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), and three major mainstream successes, Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), and The Truman Show (1998), all of which found the studio system bending to Weir's methods rather than the other way around.

However, Picnic at Hanging Rock is hardly a success for Weir alone. Cinematographer Russell Boyd achieves a wholly unique look here, avoiding what could have become a more stereotypical "shampoo commercial" look in favor of a soft, sun-dappled, but strangely menacing visual texture with the same disquieting power of looking through a book of old photographs whose subjects have all passed away. He earned a British Academy Award for his work on Picnic and went on to shoot several more Weir films as well as the cult musical Starstruck (1982) and several major Hollywood releases including Tender Mercies (1983), A Soldier's Story, and Mrs. Soffel (both 1984). Composer Bruce Smeaton also began a very busy career thanks to his work here, a striking mixture of traditional instruments, new age electronics, and sparse but effective use of Gheorghe Zamphir's ethereal pan flute long before he became a staple of direct-response TV commercials.

Most international productions in the '60s and '70s required a recognized "name" actor to boost sales potential, and here the casting of Welsh-born Rachel Roberts proved fortuitous indeed. Though primarily known as a stage actress, she was Oscar®-nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 1963's This Sporting Life and was married to actor Rex Harrison for nine years. Her role in Weir's film arrived at the height of her productivity on the screen, as she was fresh off appearances in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! (1973) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), followed next by her rowdiest role as a villainous "hot mama" in 1978's Foul Play. Her unexpected death by drug overdose in 1980 was considered a suicide.

Though the emphasis in this film lies squarely on the clashing female characters, both of the young men entangled in the mystery went on to more durable careers than their actress counterparts. In particular, John Jarratt (as Albert, the "cruder" Aussie youth) has enjoyed one of the longest and most prominent acting careers among his countrymen, ranging from youthful appearances in The Odd Angry Shot (1979) to his unforgettable villainous turn in Wolf Creek (2005), not to mention key roles in Australia's two finest killer crocodile films, Dark Age (1987) and Rogue (2007). As the more constrained and ill-equipped British lad, Michael, The Go-Between's (1970) Dominic Guard was a familiar face to viewers in the late '70s and early '80s, including a powerful turn in the neglected 1978 Richard Burton thriller, Absolution, as well as numerous British TV roles and an appearance in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982).

Though indifferently received in Australia, Picnic at Hanging Rock went on to enjoy a long, acclaimed cinematic life abroad, particularly in Europe and the United States. Though bearing a PG rating and very little onscreen violence, it also amassed a significant cult following as an unorthodox horror film due to its constant sense of mounting dread and implied supernatural elements. "Horror need not always be a long-fanged gentleman in evening clothes or a dismembered corpse or a doctor who keeps a brain in his goldfish bowl," commented Vincent Canby in The New York Times. "There are some romantic longings, especially among the young, that are so overwhelming they simply cannot be contained. The result is a movie that is both spooky and sexy." Seen today, the classification as a horror film may puzzle casual viewers but makes sense when viewed in line with the previous decade's European gothic cinema, particularly the similar structure and themes found in 1969's Spanish masterpiece, La residencia (The House that Screamed), with its disappearing schoolgirls, repressed Victorian sexuality, and abusive headmistress.

One of Picnic at Hanging Rock's more curious legacies is its role in home video history as one of the first and most controversial examples of a "director's cut" whose creator opted to remove footage rather than adding it. Weir felt that the midsection wasted time with a pair of narrative tangents involving the fallout of the disappearance which he felt were unnecessary, and he ultimately excised six minutes to create its current running time of 100 minutes. This version premiered from the Criterion Collection in the United States in 1998 and quickly became the worldwide standard, leaving fans to clutch on to their collectible VHS and import laserdiscs as reminders of its original theatrical incarnation. Weir's example was soon followed by other directors like Tony Scott (Revenge, 1990) and Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, 1992) whose revisits to past films resulted in significantly shorter works than what audiences originally encountered on the big screen.

Producers: Hal McElroy, Jim McElroy
Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: Cliff Green (screenplay); Joan Lindsay (novel)
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Art Direction: David Copping
Film Editing: Max Lemon
Cast: Rachel Roberts (Mrs. Appleyard), Vivean Gray (Miss McCraw), Helen Morse (Mlle. de Poitiers), Kirsty Child (Miss Lumley), Anthony Llewellyn-Jones (Tom), Jacki Weaver (Minnie), Frank Gunnell (Mr. Whitehead), Anne Lambert (Miranda), Karen Robson (Irma), Jane Vallis (Marion).
C-108m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by Nathaniel Thompson

Sources:
Internet Movie Database (imdb.com)
Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide, Marek Haltof (Twayne Publishers, 1996)
Images of Australia: 100 Years of the New Australian Cinema, Neil Rattigan (Southern Methodist University Press, 1991) VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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