Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Director Peter Weir
Writers Cliff Green
Starring Roberts, Helen Morse, Anne-Louise Lambert, Karen Robson
Genre Supernatural
Tagline Valentine's Day in 1900 a party of schoolgirls set out to picnic at Hanging Rock. ...Some were never to return.

By the middle of the 1970s the Australian film Industry was pretty much "dead man walking", not a lot of hits, plenty of wasted money, and the future didn't involve wearing shades. Then along came two movies from two entirely different film makers that out of the blue became international hits reviving the moribund Down Under Industry. The controversial hammer styled Inn Of the Damned by Terry Bourke got wide distribution and proved to be a horror hit, while Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock informed the pseudo intellectuals of the world that Australia could make deep meaningful movies, albeit with lots of flashing neon lights. Not surprisingly Bourke's movie generally get's swept under the carpet while the int-duh-lectuals have mutual masturbation sessions over Weir's, to my mind, lesser effort. The name of this site involves the word "scary" so guess we're on good ground here to point out the faults of what many consider to be a modern Australian masterpiece; those people are wrong by the way. Let's break it down, and point out the issues.

Talk us through it

It's Valentine's Day 1900 down Victoria way, and the pupils of Appleyard College for Young Ladies are going to celebrate by having a picnic at the isolated Hanging Rock. Being that Appleyard College is Victorian prime and proper this will not involve skinny dipping, playing volleyball in Victoria's Secret attire, or doing a kegger. If dialling in for that then you are in the wrong movie.

If wondering if I'm trying to flesh out the plot outline then that would be a big hell yes, this movie doesn't have much of a plot.

Anywise as against the commands of the School's Queen Victoria stand in, the atrocious Mrs Appleyard, three students head on up to explore the rock, oh almost forgot they also have the "fat girl" tagging along. Naturally all three pupils disappearing leaving the "fat girl" to run all the way back to the picnic squealing like a stuck pig. Taking command of the situation the "masculine intellect" teacher Miss McCaw heads off to find her misplaced students while everyone else heads back to the school to break the bad news. Miss McCaw disappears as well, which I guess didn't need to be stated really.

The rest of the movie meanders through various peoples theories, a search for the missing girls and their teacher, and a few surprise twists like one of the missing girls, Irma, being found. Something lackadaisical ensues to be honest.


"What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream." - Miranda

To be honest the first third of Hanging Rock held me spellbound as Weir builds an intricate picture of displaced home counties English society transported to the alien and menacing Australian "never never". Weir fills his film with shots of staunch Victorian repressiveness set against a thinly populated and grand landscape. There's a whole feeling of misplaced values against a brooding environment. You got to love this stuff, and Weir echoes a recurrent Down Under theme that pops up continually in various movies from this part of the world. Think Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Vincent Ward's Vigil[ (1984).

Where the cracks start to appear is in Weir trying to layer on too much for a movie not strong enough to encapsulate multiple themes. We have a whole budding sexuality thing going down with the waif like Miranda and friends gradually pulling away from the corseted society they are forced to endure; corsets play a big part in this movie as Weir fumbles a theme. There's a social thang going down as portrayed by English Landowner Michael and ocker stable hand Albert, now there's a awkward relationship open to differing interpretations. And there's whiffs of homosexuality permutating throughout; Miranda and Sarah, Michael and Albert, Mrs Appleyard and Miss McCaw. Weir hints at various things, but like the question of what did happen to the missing girls and their teacher nothing is ever fully explored.

Weir's holding back on explanations doesn't help Picnic, and you will feel let down that the picnic basket did not infact hold a Pandora's array of answers.

For those that love their symbolism well you are in the right place, although it's painful to watch as Weir neon signposts everything in a frantic effort to not go over anyone's head. Peter, believe me you didn't. We get a scene of four girls helpfully lacing up each other's corsets, there's that repressive society thing again. The whole school and its Victorian contents, displaced against the rugged environment. The never ending comparison of Miranda to a swan, oohh and one takes flight towards the end of the movie, meaning exactly what in context to the disappearance? I could go on here, but let's not beat a dead equine with a lump of four by two, something Weir doesn't bother not doing.

During the final third of the movie Weir simply drops the ball and turns in a disjointed shambles that resembles a mad woman's breakfast. Besides Mrs Appleyard turning to the demon drink, we know she's in trouble as her hair is unravelling and she appears to be suddenly dressing like Mrs McCaw, there's the whole orphan Sarah tragedy that resolves to either suicide or murder depending on how you want to interpret things. The victimisation of Sarah, and that's particularly nasty, simply comes out of the blue and has exactly zero baring on what we have sat through during the preceding hour. Apologists for this movie can probably find something to explain the whole shebang, but what the heck a fan boy by any other name. The topping on the Sarah cream cake is the broad and not very subtle hint that miraculously Sarah may in fact be Albert's long lost sister that he last saw at an orphanage. What were the chances! Like most everything else in this over rated flick Weir throws the idea on the table, then doesn't bother doing anything with it. Guess at best, if considering Albert's dream, Sarah's fate reflects Miranda's knowing that she won't be coming back from the picnic of doom.

Okay so why did I call this one a horror movie since there's no masked maniacs with knifes, long haired ghostly gals, or evil children? Simply put Weir turns on the horror themes to add the mystery and one suspects a good marketing pitch. During the amazing disappearing act Weir goes with a dreamlike almost surreal approach. Plenty of foreshadowing, with the Australian notion that showing scenes of birds suddenly taking flight is somehow a tension device; regular viewers of Aussie horror are used to this. Miranda and friends leave the picnic to go exploring the upper reaches of Hanging Rock, Miranda does stop to wave good bye to Mlle de Poiters, the very French "good teacher" who naturally, as she isn't trying to be English, is shown in a favourable light. We then get a prolonged ominous journey through various gullies and the like. Actually the sharp eyed will pick out a lot of continuity errors right there, and the same frames being re-used a few times. Finally the gals, and remembering shrill fat chick is tagging along, fall asleep in a clearing. Cue the local wildlife for no apparent reason. Side note, for those wondering the lizard is a blue tongue and not a gecko as being reported at various sites. Sometime later, could have been ten minutes or four hours the lighting doesn't change but what the heck time passes, Miranda and her two friends in a trance like state head through a gab in the rock to higher places much to the chagrin of the fat chick who immediately hurtles down the hill shrieking in terror or some such. Once again you can add various interpretations to this scene, Weir for sure doesn't bother. The whole thing is filmed as out and out horror though Weir keeps the forces of chaos discreetly off screen.

A couple of final points and we'll move on to our cast. Later in the movie Michael heads back to the rock that didn't drip blood as in one of the less plausible notions of this movie he is infatuated with Miranda, who is like a swan and all. He actually does pretty well in tracking where the gals went but is unable to climb the final hurdle to the rock opening the gals went through. You get the notion that if the internet had been around at the time he would have been wearing massacre and doing "leave Britney Miranda alone" clips on YouTube. Where Michael ultimately fails good old Albert succeeds in finding Irma, cause, well, Albert is an Ocker and Michael is a Pom, hence doomed to failure in the rugged Australian never never yadda yadda. Guess you would call this a recurrent theme of the movie; the English really are hopeless bastards end of the day in Weir's vision. It takes an Aussie to get the job done, and oh by the way a commoner hence not restricted by Victorian requirements. Am I belabouring this point? - Good because that's exactly what Weir does in a rather condescending way. This is one of those developments that normally should have Film Critics getting out and sharpening the kitchen knife, Albert with an assist from Michael finds Irma, whereas a Native tracker and a bloodhound didn't. If Hanging Rock had of been an out and out horror flick Weir would have been taken to task for this turn up, but since it's all arty and such the normal rules don't apply. Except here at Scaryminds where we're calling a spade a spade, and a weak plot point a load of bollocks.

Crap this is turning into a long movie review, bare with me we are almost done.

Irma has no recollection of what actually happened during the missing girls trials and tribulations on Hanging Rock, so we can assume it was pretty traumatic. She is found sans corset, shock horror, but Weir goes to some length to get across the notion that she is "still intact". And if you can see the "waking sexuality" thing lumbering over the horizon then good on ya. After recovering, implausibly at Michael's stately pile, Irma returns for a brief visit to the college to say her goodbyes to her former school mates. What follows is a scene straight out of Lord of the Flies which I guess kind of works in a hysteria under wraps way. As things descend into total chaos, with the prime and proper teacher banging away on a piano we find poor Sarah tied to a wall. Now simply wtf! I don't even want to go near to analysising exactly what's going down there, which is just as well as Weir doesn't bother to either.

Rachel Roberts (Mrs Appleyard) does a pretty good job on an overly stereotypical character. You can tell she's the wicked witch of the west as she has her hair tightly done up in a bun, which is never a good sign. Roberts is on in this movie, but the role really didn't require much to be perfectly blunt. Helen Morse (Mlle de Poitiers) likewise does well, and was well cast as another non-demanding character. Anne-Louise Lambert (Miranda) presents a waif like almost ethereal character and nails things. Finally Karen Robson (Irma) had me applauding.

Special mention of John Jarrett (Albert), yes that's the same actor who portrayed Mick in McLean's Wolf Creek (2005), he certainly delivers on the Ocker requirements.

T&A isn't happening, though we do get to see a couple of servants post doing the wild thing for no apparent reason.

Gheorghe Zamfir fronted up with his pan flute to do the theme piece, which is certainly left field but surprisingly captures Weir's atmosphere. Bruce Smeaton did the actually score that works when it sticks to the orchestral movements, but fails hopelessly when it goes all horror overture on us. Anyone order the six cheese pizza? I would give the soundtrack a huge thumbs up, disregarding the horror parts, and it deserved a better movie.

Summary Execution

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of those movies I was destined to see as it's widely regarded as being at the pinnacle of modern Australia movie making, i.e not a lot happens but it's all deep and meaningful. If this jumble sale of an outing is the best we can do then no wonder the local industry is in dire straights. In defence of Weir the version I watched, dubbed the "Director's Cut", is much shorter than the original theatre release so something could have been lost in translation to digital. The movie is dated, shows no attempt at cohesion, and generally descends into mediocrity during the second stanza. What could have been a great movie is hampered by too many ideas, none of which are truly explored or resolved in any fashion, and a world view that is blatantly parochial. End of Day Picnic at Hanging Rock didn't work for me and borders on the offensive in its thinly disguised attack on English Victorian restrictions. Weir may have repressive English society in his sights, but misses the irony in presenting a restrictive Australian view of that society.

Hanging Rock was adapted from the novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, who pretty much just has this one book to her credit. Not surprisingly there was an eighteenth chapter, missing from both the original novel and the movie's script, which explains just what happened to Miranda, friends, and teacher. Does Lindsay provide a supernatural explanation, perhaps alien abduction (hinted at in the movie), or near do wells? No, the answer is somewhat more prosaic. Do a google if interested in finding out, but watch the movie first.

In my never ending quest to make people aware of the dangers of movie advertising in the wrong hands, let's be perfectly clear Picnic at Hanging Rock is a work of fiction and not based on fact as some of the more gullible net denizens would have you believe. The rock is an actual place but reports the locals shun it are somewhat misleading. On February 14th there's an annual picnic held at the rock, and Valentine's Day also sees an open air screening of the movie.

Half hearted recommendation on Picnic at Hanging Rock it's an interesting movie to watch but has quite a number of problems. The major issue with the movie however is its reputation that has far exceeded the actual quality of the movie, so prepare for some disappointment. It's worth brewing up a cupper at Hanging Rock but I wouldn't get out the hamper.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

  Worth a weekly rental, but don't go anywhere near the new DVD release.