A Victorian Picnic and Not Knowing What Happened

The proper way to picnic. Image: The Cinephiliac

Some movie scripts try to answer all questions related to the plot, even if the explanations are rather far-fetched.

But the Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), doesn’t bother with any of that. Nay, this film raises tantalizing questions and leaves them unresolved.

In fact, unanswered questions is the Point.

The story is set during the Victorian era, at the turn of the last century. Students at a prestigious girls’ college prepare for a Valentine’s Day picnic at Hanging Rock, a remote and imposing monolith made of volcanic rock.

The girls, chaperoned by two of their teachers, have a lovely time at the picnic; they read, nap, and play with each other’s hair. Their crisp, white dresses look incongruous given the landscape, but that’s the Victorians for you.

Four of the students decide to disobey The No-Exploring Rule to further investigate the ancient rocks. As they hike into the rock formations, three of the girls become almost hypnotized, as though something is Summoning them.

The fourth girl, however, doesn’t get it. She’s tired and couldn’t care less about these stupid rocks.

After a short repose, the three spellbound girls simultaneously remove their shoes and stockings to climb even higher, as though they’re participating in a ritual known only to themselves. The fourth girl is left behind and suddenly sees? hears? feels? something that terrifies her.

When the party returns to the college, we learn the disastrous outcome of the picnic: Three girls have vanished, along with one of the teachers.

Exploring the ancient formation. Image: The Nightshirt

As events unfurl – police investigate, parents panic –  we realize none of the people in this story are as important as the two principle characters, namely: (1) The atmospherics; and (2) The question, “What happened?”.

Director Peter Weir uses soft, muted tones – much like a Victorian watercolour – which, curiously, make the story both remote and intimate. Although the pace of the film is unhurried, we can’t look away. We’re enveloped in ethereal mystery.

Alas, the film doesn’t tell us What Happened. We can speculate about the fate of the girls, but the movie refuses to give us certainty.

While it can be irksome not to have Answers, we quickly realize there are bigger issues the film is probing, namely the aftermath of a strange and disturbing event. How does it affect those who remain?

In short, how do we wrestle with something beyond our comprehension?

The headmistress has rules for Picnic Behaviour. Image: The Cinessential

Picnic at Hanging Rock feels like it’s based on an historical event, but it’s adapted from a popular novel by Australian novelist and playwright Joan Lindsay.

Lindsay herself addressed the novel’s ambiguity in a 1974 interview. “[I]t was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery,” she said. “If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water.”¹

As for Hanging Rock, it’s a real geologic formation in Australia. According to Wikipedia, “Hanging Rock contains numerous distinctive rock formations, including the ‘Hanging Rock’ itself (a boulder suspended between other boulders…) The highest point on Hanging Rock is…105 metres above the plain below.”²

You may think a film like this isn’t your cup of tea, but we hope you’ll give it a go. It’s a well-crafted study of the unknowable that will haunt you for some time.

Notes

  • ¹Wikipedia. (Retrieved June 19, 2019.) Joan Lindsay.
  • ²Wikipedia. (Retrieved June 19, 2019.) Hanging Rock, Victoria.
  • In 2018, Picnic at Hanging Rock was adapted as a television series.
  • This post is part of THE BLIZZARD OF OZ BLOGATHON hosted by The Midnite Drive-In.

Picnic at Hanging Rock: starring Rachel Roberts, Anne Lambert, Vivean Gray. Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Cliff Green. The South Australian Film Corporation, 1975, Colour, 115 mins.

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33 comments

  1. Since I was presented with a mystery with no solution I had intended to view the movie with a certain detachment but was unable to do so. You said it was “haunting”, and there can be no more apt description. It haunts you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You find the most interesting movies! I’ve never seen this one, and I’m not sure how I’d feel about the unresolved questions/mysteries. I encounter this in a lot of books, and it kind of depends on the story. A few open-ended things are okay, but I am one of those that needs at least some resolution 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I feel dumb admitting to this, but I never actually knew what this movie was about and always assumed it was a Western (oops!). Reading this makes me want to see this immediately!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A truly magnificent film. Thanks for reviewing it so that others may see it. I watched it a kid and was left utterly haunted. Revisited it many times over the years and have my own copy. There are so many levels of beauty, colours and sound to PAHR, but it’s finest power – for me – is the mystery it leaves behind.
    I watched the TV adaption last year and thought it did a brilliant job of retaining the same moods, while fleshing out some of the lesser character’s stories and introducing new ones. Alas, I still haven’t found the time to find and read the book. But I know I will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was wondering how the TV version compares to the film, so thanks for letting me know. (As for the novel, I thought the film was an excellent adaptation.) Like you said, it’s an excellent film that deserves to be better known these days.

      Like

  5. Lovely review. The film in and of itself creeped me out quite a bit but also fascinated me. I don’t usually watch it though, and I’ll admit it’s because, as a writer, I was extremely annoyed at the author misleading people into believing it was based on a true story and then shrugging it off when the truth was finally revealed. As an author, I believe in playing fair with the reader and not being coy about things, not to mention I think the book was marketed as a “based on a true story” thing which is flat out literary fraud. I don’t take kindly to literary frauds, no matter how intriguing the story might be.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    https://tammayauthor.com/category/blog

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make an excellent point about full disclosure and playing fair with your readers. I didn’t realize the book had been marketed as a based-on-a-true-story kind of thing, which is truly unfair.

      Sorry it took me to long to respond to your comment. It’s been a little crazy around here. 😦

      Like

  6. This was a blind spot for me last year and I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Such a well put together story and I quite liked Weir’s direction. Fine review.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is such a good movie – not for everyone, but good once you accept it’s about trauma and not about what happened. Your review certainly did it justice.
    Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. One of my favourite movies. It’s also filmed in part near where I grew up. Back in the day, people thought this depicted a real event and for years people believed it all really happened. What’s interesting about this is that it’s a post-colonial story. It’s partly an author’s attempt to come to grips with the strange bush lands of Australia, like Voss by Patrick White. The metaphysical aspects of the story are actually rooted in the trickster spirits of Aboriginal mythology. But that isn’t really something needed to be discussed because, as you said Ruth, this is a story about the people around the disappearance and how they deal with such a loss. Beautiful really in a macabre and morbid way.

    Liked by 1 person

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