Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): Peter Weir’s Superb Mystery Drama, Starring Rachel Roberts

We have added Picnic at Hanging Rock to our list of Masterpieces of World Cinema. As time goes by, the artistic stature of the film continues to grow.

Adapted by Cliff Green from Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name, Picnic at Hanging Rock  is a suspenseful mystery drama, replete with erotic overtones, skillfully directed by Peter Weir, heralding the new, vibrant Australian cinema of the 1970s.

Our grade: A (***** out of *****)

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Picnicathangingrock1.jpg

Original 1975 Australian theatrical poster

Patricia Lovell thought optioned the film rights to the 1967 novel in 1973, paying $100 for three months. She hired the then young and unknown Peter Weir to direct on the basis of “Homesdale,” and Weir brought in Hal and Jim McElroy as producers.

Set on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, this deliberately ambiguous tale depicts the disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher during a picnic at Hanging Rock, in Victoria, and the various effects on the school, the girls’ families and friends, the local community, and the society at large.

Detailed Synopsis

At Appleyard College, a girls’ private school, near the town of Woodend, Victoria, the pupils are seen dressing on in white the morning of Valentine’s Day.

The group’s main girls are Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), Rosamund (Ingrid Mason), waifish Sara (Margaret Nelson), and outsider Edith (Christine Schuler). They all read poetry and Valentine’s Day cards.

They are preparing for a picnic to a local geological formation, known as Hanging Rock, to be supervised by  mathematics mistress Miss Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) and the young Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse).

The stern headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) instructs the teacher Miss Lumley (Kirsty Child) to inform Sara that she is forbidden to attend.

Driven by buggy operator Ben Hussey (Martin Vaughan), the party arrives at the Rock in the afternoon. Mr. Hussey notes that his watch has stopped at twelve, as has Miss McCraw’s watch.  Time stands still?  Not really.

Miranda, Marion and Irma explore Hanging Rock and take measurements of the imposing site.

The group is observed minutes later by a young Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), lunching at the Rock with his uncle Colonel Fitzhubert (Peter Collingwood), his aunt Mrs. Fitzhubert (Olga Dickie), and valet Albert (John Jarratt).

At the top of Hanging Rock, the group rests on the ground, fascinated by the dazzling sun. Miss McCraw, still at the base of the Rock, stares up. Miranda, Marion, and Irma awaken and move into a recess in the rock face. Edith, who watches them, suddenly screams and flees down the Rock in terror.

The distraught party eventually returns to the College, where Mlle. de Poitiers explains to Mrs Appleyard that Miss McCraw has been left behind. Sara notes the absence of Miranda; and Mr. Hussey explains to Mrs Appleyard that Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Miss McCraw went missing.

A search party, led by Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts) and Police Constable Jones (Garry McDonald), finds no evidence, though Edith reveals that she witnessed Miss McCraw climbing the Rock without her skirt.  Questioned, Fitzhubert discloses that he watched the schoolgirls, but can provide no other clues.

Obsessed with finding Miranda, Fitzhubert and Albert conduct another search of Hanging Rock. Despite Albert’s protests, Michael remain overnight and begins climbing again the next day, leaving a trail of paper. When Albert follows the markers, he finds the catatonic Michael, who passes to Albert a fragment of lace from a dress.

Albert returns to Hanging Rock and discovers Irma, unconscious but alive. The residents of Woodend become restless as news of the discovery spreads. At the Fitzhubert home, Irma is treated for dehydration and exposure, and tells the police and Mlle. de Poitiers that she has no memory of the events. A servant notices that Irma’s corset is missing.

Michael befriends Irma but alienates her when he demands to know what happened on the Rock. Mrs Appleyard advises Miss Lumley that several parents have withdrawn their children from the school.

Before leaving for Europe, Irma visits her classmates, but they become hysterical and demand to know what happened to their missing friends. Mlle. de Poitiers intervenes; and, as Irma flees, she also notices that Sara has been strapped to a wall by Miss Lumley to correct her posture. That night, Miss Lumley hands the drunken Mrs. Appleyard her resignation.

Mrs. Appleyard tells Sara that, as her guardian has not paid her tuition, Sara must return to the orphanage.  Mrs. Appleyard lies to Mlle. de Poitiers and claims that Sara’s guardian had fetched her.

The next morning, Sara’s body is found in the greenhouse by Mr. Whitehead, the school gardener. Believing that Sara committed suicide by leaping from her bedroom window, Whitehead confronts Mrs. Appleyard, who strangely seems calm, with her possessions packed.

Michael tells Albert that he has decided to travel north, and Albert reveals that he had a dream in which his lost sister Sara visited him.

Sgt. Bumpher states in a voice-over that Mrs. Appleyard’s body was found at the base of Hanging Rock from an apparent suicide.

The search for the missing schoolgirls and Miss McCraw continued for several years with no results, and to this day, their disappearance has remained unresolved.

Weir and director of cinematography Russell Boyd wished to give the moody surreal film the look of an Impressionist painting.  They claim to have been inspired by the work of British photographer David Hamilton, who was known for draping different types of veils over his camera lens to produce soft-focus images.

Australian Impressionism, and art works such as Frederick McCubbin’s Lost (1886), also inspired the film’s visual style.

Photographer Boyd has effectively created the ethereal look of the picnic by placing bridal veil fabric over the camera lens.

Less concerned with conventional plot and psychologically motivated characters (there are dozens of figures), the narrative is deliberately subtle, taking its time in pace in order to establish a moody film, which ultimately leaves the impression of a ghost story.  Just watch the girls, all barefoot and clad in long white, wandering–and wondering–around the physically imposing setting.  The rock is often shot from a low angle and from the subjective POV of the girls.

A haunting horror movie, notably without any blood or overt violence, Picnic at Hanging Rock lingers in memory, not least for defying mainstream expectations by presenting a mystery which is unresolved, and remains open to various interpretations and speculations.

Though not the original choice to play Mrs. Appleyard–it was intended for Vivien Merchant, who got ill–Rachel Roberts gives a superlative performance as the harsh, rigid, and enigmatic school head mistress.

The main music stems from traditional Romanian panflute pieces: “Doina: Sus Pe Culmea Dealului” and “Doina Lui Petru Unc” with Romanian Gheorghe Zamfir playing the panpipe and Swiss Marcel Cellier the organ.

Australian composer Bruce Smeaton provided some original compositions (“The Ascent Music” and “The Rock”) written specifically for the movie.

Made on a small budget (less than $500,000), Picnic at Hanging Rock was a huge critical and commercial success, putting the New Australian Cinema in general and Peter Weir in particular as a major film movement and directorial talent, respectively, on the map.

Cast
Rachel Roberts as Mrs. Appleyard
Dominic Guard as Michael Fitzhubert
Helen Morse as Mlle. de Poitiers
Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda St. Clare
Margaret Nelson as Sara Waybourne
John Jarratt as Albert Crundall
Wyn Roberts as Sgt. Bumpher
Karen Robson as Irma Leopold
Christine Schuler as Edith Horton
Jane Vallis as Marion Quade
Vivean Gray as Miss McCraw
Martin Vaughan as Ben Hussey
Kirsty Child as Miss Lumley
Jacki Weaver as Minnie
Frank Gunnell as Mr. Whitehead
Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Tom
John Fegan as Doc. McKenzie
Kay Taylor as Mrs Bumpher
Peter Collingwood as Col. Fitzhubert
Garry McDonald as Const. Jones
Olga Dickie as Mrs. Fitzhubert
Jenny Lovell as Blanche

Credits:

Directed by Peter Weir
Produced by Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy
Screenplay by Cliff Green, based on Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Cinematography Russell Boyd
Edited by Max Lemon

Production company

B.E.F. Film Distributors
South Australian Film Corporation
Australian Film Commission
McElroy & McElroy
Picnic Productions

Distributed by B.E.F. Film Distributors

Release date: August 8, 1975

Running time: 115 minutes