By J.D. Lafrance
There is a fascinating air of mystery surrounding Peter Weir’s adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) that captivated me when I first saw it many years ago and continues to haunt me. While the story is a simple yet intriguing one its lack of closure is not. Several schoolgirls and their teacher go missing on a rather imposing rock out in the countryside on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900. The film tantalizes us with just enough clues and evocative imagery to keep us wondering just what happened. There are no easy answers only several theories and this is what keeps me coming back to the film. It is brilliantly directed by Weir and features a maddeningly elusive screenplay by Cliff Green and memorable performances from a cast largely made up of young girls. But perhaps the best performance comes from the most enigmatic character in the film – the Hanging Rock, an impressive geological formation that manages to be unsettling even on a bright, sunny day. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film that invites repeated viewings because it is the things that are left unsaid and the things that we don’t see that are obsessively analyzed by re-watching what is shown and what we learn from the enticing crumbs of information Weir and Green leave behind.
It is February 14th in 1900 and a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College venture out to Hanging Rock near Mount Macedon in Victoria, Australia for a picnic. The establishing shot is that of the rock and this is significant because in many respects it is the most important thing in the film – the source of mystery. Weir employs some low level sound effects, a combination of wind and subtle rumbling that sets a disquieting mood. He puts us on edge right away as the opening credits play over a montage of the schoolgirls getting ready for their picnic. There are two shots early on that seem to play slightly in slow motion – that of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) lying in bed, her eyes opening and looking over at her roommate Sara (Margaret Nelson) who smiles back at her in another shot. She does this in an ever so slightly forced way that seems subtly unnatural. It’s hard to put your finger on it but something is slightly off about these two girls. (more…)