Picnic at Hanging Rock: A Foreign Perspective

Review by Stephen Pollock:

Petticoats, flower pressing and Botticelli – not what a Brit usually expects from a movie made and set in Australia. Especially not in 1990, when my perception of Australian film was shaped by The Castle, Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee and other red-dust fare. Adverts for XXX (“I can see the pub from ‘ere”), AC/DC and Paul Hogan’s “throw another shrimp on the barbie” reinforced the image of Australia being a country low on sophistication and high on ochre, kitchen-sink pleasures. Then I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Lying in bed at the impressionable age of 14 (all spots and hormones) I remember stumbling across the film on BBC2 late one Sunday night. BBC2 was the experimental arm of the network – think SBS on Quaaludes – showing outré fare that didn’t appeal to the mainstream. As the panpipes fondled my ears and the pressed white skirts dawdled in the vernal light, I knew this was not another barbecued cliché. It had a languid charm and menace akin to European cinema. The story unfolded under the torrid Australian sun – pocket watches began to stop, Victorian schoolgirls became giddy; the rock began to seduce those within its craggy reach. The repressed girls dispensed with their shoes and stockings and marched trance-like into the rocky house of sin. Hanging Rock had become Incubus, luring the nubile girls on the cusp of sexual maturity….

The rest of the film is a supernatural whodunit—crammed with dim-witted policeman and gentry scratching their heads. Eventually one of the missing girls is found by Michael, a well-to-do English boy, who is restless and on the verge of manhood. He is unsure of his sexual impulses and strikes up an unlikely bond with Albert, his uncle’s gruff valet:

“I’d rather you didn’t say crude things like that, Albert,” says Michael.
“I say the crude things; you just think them.”

The film tramples the corn around sexual repression and adolescence. Were the girls punished for succumbing to their hormonal urges on Valentines Day, or are they basking in the Elysian Fields? We never find out – there is no neatly packaged dénouement. The mystery remains unsolved and that is part of Picnic’s attraction: what we don’t know and what we don’t understand – its ambiguity is its charm. Unlike AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, the snare drum does not always fall on two and four with a sort of dull, deadening of the senses regularity. At a preview of the film in 1975, a Hollywood distributor choked on his popcorn because there was no “the butler did it” ending: 

“One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he’d wasted two hours of his life – a mystery without a goddamn solution!” claims director Peter Weir.

This wasn’t always the case. The film was based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay. In her original draft she gave the reader a sense of closure by revealing what had happened to the missing girls. But her editor recommended she make the ending more enigmatic and she changed it. It was a wise decision: in 1987 the original ending was revealed in the book The Secret of Hanging Rock. In it the girls encounter a “hole in space” – after their corsets become stuck in mid-air – and they physically enter a crack in the rock.

I watched the director’s cut of Picnic in 2014. It was the first time I had seen the film since my nubile encounter in 1990. The print was crisp and the cinematography as beautiful as I remembered. When “Directed by Peter Weir” appeared on the screen I smiled. I didn’t know that Weir, who has made some of my favourite films including The Way Back and The Dead Poets Society was at the helm. But it made sense. The cutaway shots to ants devouring a slice of sticky cake, the boughs of trees, birds wheeling across the sky, gurgling eddies – nature’s mantle. Weir is probably only second to director Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) when it comes to weaving nature into his films.

Picnic at Hanging Rock and Phillip Adams should replace Lara Bingle and Bondi beach in Australia’s tourism campaign. Tagline – “Throw another metaphor on the barbie”. We might get more sexually repressed oddballs entering the country, but it would dispel the myth, that some foreigners still have, that Australia is a cultural abyss. We are more than just a clutch of surfers’ pubes: we have slight of hand, flower pressing, petticoats and Hanging Rock – where time becomes inert and anything is possible.

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