• Picnic at Hanging Rock

    By Vincent Canby

    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 gold fish bowl. It may be a warm sunny day, the innocence of girlhood and hints of unexplored sexuality that combine to produce a euphoria so intense it becomes transporting, a state beyond life or death. Such horror is unspeakable not because it is gruesome but because it remains outside the realm of things that can be easily defined or explained in conventional ways.

    It’s also the fascination of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Australian film directed by Peter Weir, who was introduced to American audiences [in 1978] by his moodily impressive The Last Wave.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock . . . is about three virginal young women and a school mistress who, on Valentines Day, 1900, disappear without a trace while on an expedition to a splendid geological outcropping called Hanging Rock. The movie would like us to believe it’s based on fact though it’s really based on a novel by Joan Lindsay. Whatever the origins the story provides Mr. Weir with material for a kind of Australian horror-romance that recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preoccupation with the spiritual and moral heritage of his own New England landscape.

    In The Last Wave Mr. Weir made what seemed to me to be the grave mistake of attempting to provide answers for the mysteries he so beautifully set up earlier in the film. Picnic at Hanging Rock is different. It’s a movie composed almost entirely of clues. Its methods are illusory, not necessarily to trick us but to force us to stretch our imaginations. Instead of exposition, Mr. Weir and his screen writer, Cliff Green, deal in moods.

    The opening section of the film, in which we are introduced to the students at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for young women, dramatizes their innocence with such intensity that we are immediately aware of sexual longings everywhere: students for students, students for school mistress, school mistress for someone unknown, even the maid for the gardener. Exchanged with high giggles are Valentines that pledge eternal love. Quite arbitrarily one of the girls is prevented from going on the picnic. Why? The only explanation is that the head mistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), is a monster. Another girl, carried away by her anticipation of the glorious day and by her own intimations of immorality, remembers Poe’s lines, “All that we see or seem/is but a dream within a dream.”

    The heat of the day is as much of a presence during the picnic as the rock formation that provides shadow for the group. Mr. Weir makes us believe that the landscape is alive. When four of the girls set off to explore the rock, ignoring warnings of venomous snakes and poisonous ants, we have the impression that they are being called. As they climb higher and higher into the volcanic outcropping, one girl, the chubby one named Edith, panics and runs screaming back to the base. For some unexplained reason, the dry, spinsterish teacher of geometry decides to follow the three who are climbing the rock. Later, after the disappearance of the group has been confirmed, a witness reports having seen the teacher at some distance, running across a plateau, in her pantaloons.

    I can’t tell you how the story is resolved, though some people will feel cheated. That, however, will be to have anticipated a different movie. I’m not sure that Mr. Weir has succeeded in evoking his “dream within a dream” world without using one or two more red herrings than are absolutely necessary, but because the film has a hypnotic spell I accept its excesses.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock is very nicely cast, beginning with Rachel Roberts and including Anne Lambert as Miranda, the beautiful girl who leads her classmates into oblivion; Karen Robson as Irma, the one member of the expedition who survives but remembers nothing; Dominic Guard as a young man who shares Irma’s forgotten secret; and Christine Schuler as the chubby girl who complains when she’s included in a plan and complains even more when she’s left out.

    Though Picnic at Hanging Rock has immense feeling for an interest in the Australian landscape, it is anything but a picturesque or provincial film. Among other things it knows that there are some romantic longings, especially in the young, that are so overwhelming they simply cannot be contained. The result is a movie that is both spooky and sexy.

    Copyright ©1979 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.

8 comments

  • By Sidney
    May 20, 2012
    04:26 PM

    Thanks, Vincent. I saw this film for the first time, actually, and I thought it was very eerie, haunting, and chilling. It's like a slasher film without the slashing, a horror movie without the horror, a crime film without the crime, and a monster movie without the monster, and that contributes to the disturbing power of this masterpiece. I definitely waiting for the re-release, if there is going to be.
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    • By Zachary Lotker
      November 27, 2013
      10:11 PM

      I remember the first time I saw this movie I couldn't sleep. It was suggestive without feeling underdeveloped. It's fascinating that many people remember a scene where Ms. McCraw climbs the rock "oddly" in her bloomers, when such a scene doesn't exist in any version. It was only described by Edith in an uncanny way.
  • By Tom Welch
    December 09, 2013
    07:01 PM

    I feel that the ending going into the dissolution of the school and entwining narratives was cobbled on to a dreamlike, mysterious movie. I would love to see this movie re-edited to leave out the last 10 minutes or so.
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  • By Jim
    March 13, 2014
    03:25 PM

    An intriguing film. It mixes mysticism and eroticism. And the late Rachel Roberts gives a keen and unknowable performance.
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  • By Barry Moore
    May 02, 2014
    10:42 AM

    With hindsight, we can now see 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' as a seminal production of Australia's New Cinema. It remains one of the superior Australian movies I have seen and heard, though not on the same level as the 1971 'Walkabout', which was directed by an Englishman, Nicolas Roeg, and dealt with English children negotiating the continent's vast outback. Canby could not have known in 1979 that Joan Lindsay's novel had an additional closing chapter that was omitted at the editor's discretion in 1967 and was published separately some decades later; the chapter relates the activities of Miss McGraw and Miranda, Marion, and Irma upon the rock after disappearing, and leaves no doubt about the fantastic nature of the story, though the events remain mysterious. The original publisher thought the chapter left too little to the reader's imagination, whereas actually the text heightens the story's strangeness and pathos.
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    • By Hannes Minkema
      June 15, 2014
      05:39 AM

      Mr. Moore, you are just repeating the story that Lindsay's editor has told us. There is no factual evidence whatsoever of the truth to that story - that Lindsay had written an 'additional closing chapter' that was left out. This hypothesis is based on nothing but hearsay, coming from the ones who were to profit from a renewed interest in Lindsay's novel and the movie based on it. It was three years after Lindsay's death that the editor came about with this story of a 'secret chapter' - when Lindsay was conveniently not around anymore to confirm or refute its authenticity. I find the hypothesis of the 'secret chapter' containinng 'the solution' highly unlikely, if I consider what Lindsay has stated, time and again, about the nature and genesis of her novel. Lindsay has fiercely advocated that this novel was NOT a 'whodunnit', that she purposefully wrote it as an open-ended story, and WITHOUT a particular solution. Evidently, she considered this as a main quality of her novel. Critical readers are disappointed by the deviating style and content of the so-called 'last chapter'. This is also an indication of it not being authentic. The editor presented no material evidence for his story. He presented no manuscript, no annotated typoscript, no correspondence, no last will, no signed notary documents of Lindsay transferring the rights of that chapter to the editor. In all: the story is based on nothing. I wonder why so many people bought into it. The 'last chapter', published and sold as if it was written by Lindsay, should be considered a literary hoax. The history of world literature is full of literary hoaxes.
  • By Andrew Hill
    June 17, 2014
    05:55 PM

    In response to Mr. Minkema's comment - are there no libel/slander laws in Aussie land? If the "last chapter" was indeed published as written by Joan Lindsay - and the publisher obviously obtained a handy profit from her alleged work - where is the estate of Ms. Lindsay in not receiving funds for the published work? And, if the estate did receive funds for the work from the publishing house - and the work was not written by Ms. Lindsay as Minkema suggests - then they are also guilty. Yes, the history of world literature is full of literary hoaxes - but in todays day and age with legal minds out for recognition and profit - I can't see quite how the publishers could get away with Mr. Minkema's alleged hoax.
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  • By BA
    July 21, 2014
    02:54 PM

    As has been stated, the whole film is a metaphor for some kind of sexual awakening, unavoidable and inevitable; despite the best efforts of society and the status quo, as represented by Mrs. Appleyard and certain of her staff. This is evidenced by the fact that other colleagues still prove susceptible. I have not read, and will continue to avoid, any sort of emergent ending which seeks to explain the narrative as some kind of supernatural occurrence. After watching the film for the first time yesterday, I can proclaim it a new favourite.
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