THE PLOT: On St. Valentine's Day in the year 1900, a party of girls from Appleyard College, a fictitious private school in the Mt. Macedon area of Victoria, Australia, go for a picnic at nearby Hanging Rock, under the care of two mistresses (Mlle. de Poitiers and Miss McGraw) from the school and a buggy-driver. The excursion ends in tragedy when three of the girls (Miranda, Irma, Marion) - and later Miss McGraw - mysteriously vanish while climbing the rock. Michael, a young man who was also picnicking at Hanging Rock, and his family's valet, Albert, find Irma on a subsequent search; she is still alive but with no memory whatsoever of her ordeal or the fate of her companions.
The unsolved mystery poisons the school's reputation. Sara, Miranda's young roommate, who did not go on the picnic, is increasingly alienated by both her classmates and the headmistress, Miss Appleyard. She commits suicide by jumping off the school roof, and Miss Appleyard shortly follows suit, leaping to her death from one of the jagged peaks of Hanging Rock.
|At the Hanging Rock (1875, oil on canvas) by William Ford (1820–1886).|
"What strange, feminine secrets did they share in that last gay fateful hour?"
Picnic at Hanging Rock is written in the style of a true story with a pseudo-historical prologue and epilogue. The author was coy on whether or not it was based on true events and teased the possibility in interviews that it was all based on local legends from her time in the Clyde Girl's Grammar School at East St. Kilda, Melbourne, which Lindsay attended while in her teens. But no historical evidence was ever found to match the events and characters of the story.
Lindsay died in 1984 without ever confirming or denying Picnic at Hanging Rock was a work of fiction, but three years after her death, in accordance with her wishes, an excised "final chapter" to the story, written by the author in 1967, was published. From its wiki:
"In this chapter, each of the girls begins to experience dizziness and feel as if she is being 'pulled from the inside out;' they then throw their corsets from the top of the cliff but instead of falling, the corsets stand still in mid-air. The girls then encounter what is described as a 'hole in space.' The suspension of the corsets and description of the hole in space suggest that the girls perhaps encountered some sort of time warp, which is compatible with Lindsay's fascination with and emphasis on clocks and time in the novel."
"Miss McGraw appears, climbing the rock in her underwear, and shouts 'Through!'
They see a snake crawling down a crack in the rock. Miss McGraw suggests they follow the snake and takes the lead. She transforms into a small lizard-like creature and disappears into the crack. Marion follows her, then Miranda, but when Irma's turn comes, a balanced boulder [the hanging rock] slowly tilts and blocks the way. The chapter ends with Irma 'tearing and beating at the gritty face on the boulder with her bare hands'."
"The awful silence closed in and Edith began, quite loudly now, to scream. If her terrified cries had been heard by anyone but a wallaby squatting in a clump of bracken a few feet away, the picnic at Hanging Rock might yet have been just another picnic on a summer's day. Nobody did hear them. The wallaby sprang up in alarm and bounded away, as Edith turned back, plunged blindly into the scrub and ran, stumbling and screaming, towards the plain."
I cannot praise the writing enough. Beautifully written, structured and paced.
"Insulated from natural contacts with the earth, air, and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings, and kid boots, the drowsy well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more a part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a backcloth of cork rocks and cardboard trees."
Lindsay (who later became Lady Lindsay upon the knighting of her husband) didn't achieve as much success with her other works as she did with Picnic, but the book (and especially the film) is often cited as instrumental in forging a distinct Australian national identity. (So much so that at least one reviewer refers to hating it as a rite of passage for young Aussie film fans.)
Before we get to the film, a word on the ending. As Miss Appleyard physically and psychologically deteriorates in the aftermath of the girls' disappearance, she increasingly takes out her frustrations on Miranda's young roommate, Sara.
The headmistress sets it in her mind to drum Sara out of the school, and Sara, in her despondency over Miranda's disappearance, does nothing to help her cause. The night before she is found dead in the garden:
Miss Appleyard tells Mlle. de Poitiers (the French mistress who is one of the few adults to be kind to Sara throughout) that Sara's guardian came to the school and took her away and that she is not returning. This version of events conflicts with the reality, of course, but we are not led to believe that Miss Appleyard killed Sara or anything like that. Before this mystery can be resolved, Miss Appleyard hires a coach to bring her to the base of Hanging Rock and makes her own ascent.
"Now, at last, after a lifetime of linoleum and asphalt and Axminster carpets, the heavy flat-footed woman trod the springing earth. Born fifty-seven years ago in a suburban wilderness of smoke-grimed bricks, she knew no more of Nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn."
Her fate is revealed only in the epilogue, as it is in the film, but one crucial difference: before she begins to climb the rock, Miss Appleyard sees the bloodied ghost-corpse of Sara beckoning her to follow.
Why this was excised from the film I don't know, nor is it presented with much comment or fanfare in the book. But it is a haunting image and one I felt added significantly both to the mystery and to the themes in play.
Faithfully and thoughtfully adapted by Cliff Green, Peter Weir's film is, as aforementioned, somewhat synonymous with the Australian New Wave of the 1970s. A subject I know really nothing about, I'm afraid, so I can't say much more about it than that. What I can tell you, though, is that this is a beautiful, dreamlike film that defies easy description.
|Something Manson-Girls-y about this...|
|Irma played by Karen Robson.|
|Miranda played by Anne-Louise Lambert.|
The casting all around is great. As the reviewer afore-linked remarks, "it is uncommonly well-acted for an Australian film of its period." Again, I can't confirm or deny this. I think the only Australian films I've seen from this period are Nic Roeg's Walkabout and George Miller's Mad Max. Both of which I love of course. (Of those two, Picnic is way more Walkabout than Mad Max.)
|Helen Morse as Mademoiselle de Poitiers.|
|And John Jarratt (probably best known to American audiences as the torture porn killer in Wrong Turn) as Albert.|
|The sound design works hand-in-hand with the visuals. As Edith flees in terror from the mystery of the Rock, the soundtrack swells with ominous music and shrieks.|
For the first third (the scenes at the Rock) Boyd placed a bridal veil fabric over the lens. Anytime anyone achieves a cool effect without switching lenses or the aid of CGI, I'm impressed. Simple but effective.
|"And without their shoes..."|
I'm often surprised at the cross-section of genre fans that embrace it. Some admire its horror film aesthetic, others its poetry or surrealism, and still others its period-piece beauty. It's all of these things. As Megan Abbott remarks in her Criterion film essay:
"If the rock is the film's most obvious blank canvas, it is Miranda who proves just as powerful a cipher. She is the object of the projections and fantasies of nearly all the characters, from Mademoiselle de Poitiers, who dubs her a Botticelli angel, to Michael, the lovesick young gentleman who in true Victorian fashion finds her more appealing as an unattainable (possibly dead) vision or symbol than as a full-blooded woman. As he daydreams impotently, gauzy, slow-motion shots of Miranda fade into a swan gracefully gliding across the water."
In the novel, the rescued Irma and Michael have a bit of a courtship which ends abruptly when Michael takes a job out of town. In the film, their friendship is more reserved, and their falling out occurs when Michael grills her for details of what happened during her convalescence.
As in the novel, when Irma returns to Appleyard College to say her goodbyes, she is surrounded by her former classmates who tear at her hair and clothes and demand she reveal what she knows.
This is less a demand to reveal the answer to the mystery at the top of Hanging Rock and more a metaphysical demand of the repressed to the liberated. Irma is seen as someone who has penetrated the mystery - of sex, mainly - and is holding out on the girls. In this case, Irma gets off easy, compared to Sara.
Final Verdict: Both novel and film are standalone achievements: very powerful with an eerie and evocative atmosphere. As an adaptation, one can only assume Joan Lindsay was well pleased to see her work transcribed so poetically and considerately to the screen.