Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Having seen this twice now, my admiration for this film is unquestioned. It tells the story of four people who go missing at Hanging Rock in South Australia at the turn of the twentieth century. An all-girls school travels to the mysterious rock for a picnic on St. Valentines Day -mid-summer for them. Against their better judgment, some go exploring on the rock and do not return.

The search for the girls spans several days. Nothing is found, neither clothes nor bodies. A week out, one girl is found, amazingly still alive, apparantly having had no food or water the entire time. Aside from some cuts and bruises, she appears unharmed, yet has no memory of her time on the rock.

The mystery is the center of this film, but what brings it to the level of greatness is its keen eye toward those affected by the mystery. The school is as foreboding as ever, and the principal, Mrs. Appleyard, appears to be progressively losing her grip on things. After the incident, some of the girls are understandably pulled from the school for safety reasons. Employees are having a difficult time coping with the loss. Yet we begin to see the cracks in Mrs. Appleyard, with her hair becoming disheveled to heavy drinking, and finally, looking like death itself, in her mourning clothes, as she is told about Sara’s accident. She becomes representative of the way this tragedy and ongoing mystery affects them all.

The look, the music, the dialogue, and the actors all provoke a profound sense of mystery about the proceedings. Director Peter Weir evokes mystery with all of these elements. As the images float across the screen, Weir often places blurred objects in the foreground, as if to obscure our vision slightly. It’s as if we don’t see all that is going on. Our view is limited. In the same way, Weir’s shots of the rock itself are either from miles away, or they are perspectival. We see what people on the rock see. We have no idea where on the rock they are, or where they have and haven’t searched. Maybe they don’t know either. Maybe that’s the point. As the old man states near the finale of this film: some questions have answers, and some don’t.

And this one doesn’t – Weir allows the mystery to linger for us. The tragedy of these people stays with us. They are constantly comparisoned with swans, and flowers fill the frames throughout. Just like the elegant birds and the stirking wildflowers, these beautiful and delicate young women have been taken from those who love them, and there just are no easy answers.

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