Picnic at Hanging Rock

video review by Gary Johnson

Long before The Truman Show, long before Dead Poet's Society, long before Witness, director Peter Weir created several atmospheric movies in his native Australia, including Picnic at Hanging Rock, arguably his best movie. This new, digitally-remastered VHS and DVD release from Home Vision Cinema represents the first time the movie has been available in 15 years.

Peter Weir is an expert at using the camera to create atmosphere. In movies as disparate as The Truman Show, Fearless, and Witness, Weir has created a palpable sense of longing. All of these movies are about surviving in an environment where the rules of life have been completely changed--through physical constraints, psychological boundaries, and cultural perceptions (respectively). And Picnic at Hanging Rock is no different: it gives us a palpably dense, dream-like atmosphere that forever is on the verge of intoxicating the viewers, as is does the lead characters, in an overpowering aura of longing and repression. With soft-focus lenses, Weir takes us into a world of golden glows and gentle whispers, where the characters exist as hazy, evocative recollections.

Based on a book by Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock takes us to a girls' finishing school in Australia, where the teenage girls embark on a field trip/picnic to a local landmark--a near-vertical precipice called Hanging Rock. While the girls rest at the foot of the rock, a group of four girls begins to traverse the rock. However, something unexplained happens and three of the girls fail to return. And soon afterwards one of their teachers follows and she also disappears. Search parties scour the vicinity of the rock but no traces of the three girls and their teacher are found.

Weir doesn't provide any worldly explanations for the disappearances. Whereas many filmmakers would have provided their own theories, Weir allows the mystery to stand. Instead, he focuses on how everyone else reacts to the disappearances--how the headmistress (portrayed by Rachel Roberts) becomes powerless as her school's reputation is tarnished and parents withdraw their students; how a local boy becomes obsessed with searching for the girls; how an orphan girl named Sara reacts to the disappearance of Miranda, whom she loved. Possible explanations abound--with leading culprits ranging from kidnappers/murderers to UFO abductions--but Weir only provides tantalizing hints.

However, while the movie doesn't provide a definitive physical explanation for the disappearances, Weir loads the movie with clues that the disappearances should be viewed as metaphorical. For starters, the main events take place on Saint Valentine's Day--the most romantic day of the year. However, the teenage girls are trapped at a girls-only school named Appleyard College (an orchard for ripening fruit?). As a result, they pass Valentine's cards among themselves and breathlessly read love poems to each other. In a key scene, Weir shows as they help each other dress, and his camera focuses on a daisy-chain of girls tightening each other's corset. In this land of sexual repression and misplaced sexual yearnings, the girls venture to a towering 500-foot tall rock (with phallic implications?) and four girls in the party begin to climb higher and higher up the slopes. Not surprisingly one girl turns around and runs screaming down the rock. But the others take off their shoes (a sign that they are breaking from sexual repression?), and as the camera idealizes them in a golden haze, they begin their final slow-motion ascent.

On a metaphorical level, the movie suggests that the girls' minds have become foggy (enraptured?) by the rock's magnetic pull (a sign of sexual yearning?) and they have embarked on a hypnotic journey to a mythical never-never land of higher (sexual?) fulfillment. In fact, the pocketwatches of several party members stop dead in the presence of the rock. Of course, the time lapse also begs for a paranormal explanation, as in a UFO abduction or a space/time wrinkle. However, these are needlessly clumsy and blatant explanations for such an ethereal and yet portentous event, especially so in a movie where the atmosphere holds such a palpable and steadfast hold on its viewers.

Many critics have mistakenly assumed that the events portrayed in Picnic at Hanging Rock are based on actual events that took place in 1900 near Woodend in the state of Victoria. However, as indicated in her book The Murders at Hanging Rock (1980), author Yvonne Rousseau points out that the college didn't exist in 1900 and newspaper records do not mention any disappearances. However, Joan Lindsay's novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, quotes police transcripts and newspaper accounts like an authentic historical document. This semblance of reality forces us to approach the events seriously. While Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd's images hold us spellbound, the plausibility of the events intrigues us like an intricate jigsaw puzzle.

When the movie was made in 1975, Weir was not permitted to supervise the final cut. This "Director's Cut" version, available for the first time, restores director Weir's original vision.


Picnic at Hanging Rock is now available from Home Vision Cinema in both VHS and DVD versions. The movie has been digitally remastered, letterboxed, and recorded in Dolby Stereo. Suggested retail price: VHS $79.95; DVD $29.95. For more information, try the Home Vision Cinema Web site: www.homevisioncinema.com.