An occasion for mystery develops from a private girls’ school Valentine’s Day picnic excursion to Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia, in 1900: three of the girls and one of the chaperoning teachers vanish. “Nobody knows what happened.”
Actually, the film opens with a wide-angle shot of a dreamy landscape and the voiceover of one of the girls who will disappear, Miranda: “What we see, and what we dream/ Are but a dream—a dream within a dream.” This is a misquotation of lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “A Dream Within a Dream.” Ironically, another student, Sara, is not allowed to participate in the picnic because she has failed to learn the lines of another, obscure assigned poem. Headmistress Mrs. Appleyard informs the orphan, “I expect you to be word-perfect in half an hour.” Earlier, Miranda warned Sara that she mustn’t be so attached to her, because she, Miranda, will soon be gone.
Based on a novel by Joan Lindsay that owes nothing to anything that ever happened (despite the contrary myth that has become attached to the film), Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is full of references to the Fall myth. There is Mrs. Appleyard’s name. There is her warning to the girls before they depart for Hanging Rock not to climb up once there and to be on the lookout for “venomous snakes and poisonous ants.” All in white, including gloves, the girls are a picture of innocence; a sentimental teacher, chaperoning at Hanging Rock, calls Miranda a Botticelli angel. Once watches have inexplicably stopped at noon, the teacher will follow four of the girls up to Hanging Rock. Except for one girl, Edith, who comes tearing down in horror, the barefooted others disappear.
Artfully composed and edited, Weir’s somewhat labored film weaves a fragile, haunting spell. There are telling juxtapositions; after a resting girl says, “We may be the only creatures in the world,” a closeup of ants disputes her inadvertent allusion to the Fall myth. Stunning image: a high overhead shot of the young climbers making their way through a narrow vaginal crevasse.
The school’s downward spiral, culminating in Appleyard’s suicide, feels protracted, stodgy, predictable—and lifted from Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour.
Hanging Rock is a sacred Aboriginal place. On one level, the deaths and their aftermath symbolize white guilt for the European rape of native Australia.
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