This film is delicate, lovely, and mysteriously elusive. It is also, without a doubt, one of the eeriest, most frightening films I have ever seen. Its premise is simple – on Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of Australian schoolgirls enjoy a day trip to a local “geological marvel”. Three of the girls and their teacher climb the rock and disappear forever. In the aftermath of the tragedy, those affected search for answers.
On paper, so to speak, the film’s imagery and tone might seem in line with other so-called period pieces. Beautiful, virginal adolescents in frilly white frocks. Gently swelling classical music. Natural light, a soft colour palette. The cinematography is incredibly skillful – careful compositions and slow pans that are artful without being distracting.
But there are a few moments in which this thick, dreamlike and deceptive calm is ruptured. These moments are extremely jarring, and are the closest the film ever gets to the “horror” classification which has sometimes been given to it. The truth is that this film is impossible to classify or pigeonhole neatly into a certain genre.
Yet the calm can be frightening as well. The rock itself is a presence that looms over the countryside and over the film, silent and massive and unmoving, yet weirdly sentient… the volcanic formations, the crevices, and the crags seem to gaze right back at the girls, at the camera, and at us.
In part what is so fascinating about Hanging Rock is the way the girls, with their delicately civilized loveliness, contrast with the primal, ancient, untamed, sublime beauty of the rock itself. They’re people who are unsuited to their surroundings on an essential level.
In the wake of the disappearance, we spend time with the girls’ peers, their teachers, and others in their lives, as the event weighs down upon the community. Michael, the wealthy young man who becomes obsessed with the vanished girls after a chance encounter on the Rock on the day of the picnic; little Edith, the “dumpy” younger classmate who is so overcome by an incomprehensible terror that she leaves the three and runs screaming down the rock; Mrs. Appleyard, the prim, cruel headmistress who seems to care more about her school’s reputation and the preservation of propriety than for the fate of her students; poor, sad, abused Sara, the orphan girl who serves as a sort of school scapegoat… these are characters every bit as memorable and haunting as doomed Miranda and her two companions.
The mystery is never solved, but that’s as it should be. There is something so much more terrifying about the absolutely unknown – something unexplainable by either science or the supernatural – than in any story of kidnapping, murder, rape or tragic accident. The clues and symbols add up, not into a solved puzzle, but into something more abstract…
Picnic at Hanging Rock leaves you with a feeling that is as difficult to describe as it is impossible to shake. It is profoundly unsettling, but there is also a kind of sweetness to the haunting grief it evokes. What’s really remarkable is that it is impossible to directly trace the source of the feeling of unease experienced from the opening shot to the closing credits. You can’t point to a certain shot or bit of music or cryptic phrase as the reason for the strange feeling. In that way, the film truly transcends the sum of its parts. I look forward to revisiting the film as an adult – I feel that it’s the kind that reveals different things as you grow and change.
It’s tempting to scour the film for clues and to analyze the subtext to find some clear message – certainly, themes of budding sexual desire, fascination, prim society, and the civilized fear of the wild and unknown are hinted at, and often present. But I think such a clinical evaluation would be doing it a disservice. The way the the film deliberately avoids providing clear and easy answers is an essential part of the experience. By telling a mystery story without resolution and creating such a powerful yet inexplicable response in the viewer, Peter Weir elevates his tale into the realm of the allegorical.
Here are images from the film.