in Criterion Month, Review

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

I read on article on that Wikipedia all the kids are talking about. It was called “List of films considered the best”. The article breaks down the most critically acclaimed films by genre and polls. There are Audience polls, Critical polls, and National polls. That last one assigns one or two films to every country as that nation’s defining work. Like did you know the most acclaimed film from the Ukraine is a film called “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”? You do now! The US and the UK have a bunch of films comin’ for that number one spot. Who will win? Citizen Kane? The Godfather? Gone with the Wind? Probably not the last one.

Australia has two entries. One is a 1997 comedy called “The Castle” that Australian people suddenly decided was great in 2008. But for thirty-three years the choice for Best Film from Down Under was almost unanimous, Picnic at Hanging Rock. What was it about this turn-of-the-century drama about missing school girls that captured the heart of a nation? Why did this film connect so well with the rest of the world? And where did those girls go?

Before it was the best film ever made, Picnic at Hanging Rock was a 1967 best selling novel by Joan Lindsay. She optioned the rights several years later and picked upcoming filmmaker Peter Weir to direct based on Weir’s 1971 short film Homesdale. All funding towards the film came from the Australian government and filming began (at the novel’s actual locations) in the winter of 1975. Except I think in winter it’s summer there.

The story is set at a private boarding school in Mount Macedonia, Victoria on Valentine’s Day in 1900. A day trip to Hanging Rock (which is indeed a place with a big rock) is organized by the school’s stuffy headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts). The girls have a picnic (like the title) and sit back and chill until five girls decide to go on a hike. The girls traverse the rocky terrain of hanging rock, almost as if hypnotized by the rays of the sun. One of the girls freaks and runs back. While the others disappear into the wilderness.

Going into this movie I thought we were going to follow the exploits of the girl’s surviving in the wild. Maybe they’d fight a bear (like in The Edge) or whatever they have in Australia. Big spiders, maybe? When actually this story is about how the community reacts to the disappearance. It’s about how one unexpected event can completely unravel the fabric of so many lives. It’s about the mystery that is Australia.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is very much an ensemble piece. We follow the police chief in his search, the distraught mathematics teacher, some lovelorn Eddie Redmayne-looking guy, and Mrs. Appleyard all consumed by this tragedy. Parents take their children away from the girl’s school as the friends and families of the girls crumble. There isn’t some slick detective or squad hot on the case. It’s just a bunch of scenes of people worrying and philosophizing, and occasionally searching the perimeter of a big rock.

It’s a more quiet movie than I anticipated. Most Australian movies I’ve seen have fast cars or killer pigs or guys named Max who also drive fast cars. This feels more like a film from England but I think it’s when you mix that element with the vast wilderness of Australia that you start to get something unique.

I can see why people (all around the world) can relate to this film. We’ve all lost things. People know what it’s like to feel hopeless and rack your brain over things you’ll never know. But what makes this film special is Australia as a place. Though the British colonized Australia in the 1700s it still to this day feels like another world. The exotic flora and fauna of Australia were seldom explored in pop culture. Australia isn’t portrayed as an ominous place either. More like a dream world. Or at least a waking coma world.

I almost forgot to mention another reason this story resonated so much is that Joan Lindsay has teased the story might be true. Many claim this was just to entice readers/viewers but even to this day many believe this is a true story. I mean it worked for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre why wouldn’t it work for Picnic at Hanging Rock?

The film is talky at times and slow and methodical but it is beautiful. The performances are naturalistic—Mrs. Appleyard is laying it down—and the film has a chilling score. I didn’t use to be afraid of pan flutes but I am now. Is it the best film ever to come from Australia? I think my buddy Mad Max might have some qualms with that statement. Still, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an enchanting and mysterious work, just like Australia. You won’t find me there though. Dang spiders.

It kind of looks like a dude frowning.