‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is an odd, unsettling film, a mystery without a solution, a dream within a dream that has you pondering about the real life mystery that inspired it, only to find that there is none, it’s a work of total fiction.
Set in Australia in 1900, it tells of a trip to a local landmark by students and teachers at the sort of fee paying girls school where gloves must only be removed in one hundred degree temperatures as if these sort of petty rules stop the establishment from being a bubbling cauldron of sexual tension and adolescent insanity. The trip is almost hallucinatory, the girls dozing in the heat in their white dresses as they make their way further and further into the hostile prehistoric environment of the outback. When they arrive at the rock, a volcanic outcrop that, according to Mrs. Mangel from ‘Neighbours’ has been ‘waiting for them for a million years’, they languidly enjoy a picnic before four of the girls decide to go off and do some exploring. Two of the girls (and Mrs. Mangel, who goes off to look for them without her skirt) will never be seen again.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, although it’s difficult to provide spoilers for something so unusual and enigmatic. Like Nic Roeg’s ‘Walkabout’, it seems to infer that the interior of Australia is far too wild and weird and deadly a place for so-called civilisation, an ancient land of strange, unknown forces, natural and supernatural, that has the capacity to swallow people whole.
‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ is a film that nags at you, you find yourself worrying about it. Author Joan Lindsay deliberately omitted the last, explanatory chapter from the original novel, although the ‘solution’ has subsequently been published separately. It doesn’t help – there is no rational explanation to what happened, only more information. The film was directed by Peter Weir, right at the beginning of his illustrious career. It’s brilliantly realised throughout, from the eerie, gauzy shots of the picnic, to the amazing soundtrack. We have a saying in my house – if you can make the fucking pan pipes sound good, then you must be onto something.