Peter Weir’s recent film, The Way Back, confirmed what movie fans already knew, the director is one of the greats. I thought I’d catch up on his earlier work. I recently re-watched Master and Commander and finally realized how great that nautical movie really is. Now I’ve seen his first (and Australia’s first) international hit, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and it holds up as a haunting work of art as well as a sign of great things to come from the esteemed director.
It’s St. Valentine’s Day in the year 1900, a group of schoolgirls take the titular picnic at the titular hanging rock. Four of the girls go exploring around the rock and three of them go missing. The fourth girl (the token fat one) runs back to the picnic screaming hysterically. We discover later that one of their teachers was seen running up the rock missing her pantaloons and that she too is missing.
Picnic at Hanging Rock doesn’t have a real main character, but that isn’t the problem it could be in lesser hands. It does, however, have interesting characters and a perplexing central mystery to focus the narrative. The film is fiction but presented in such a way that you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. This verisimilitude is what makes the movie so disturbing.
The mind wanders, wondering just what happened up on that rock, and why not a single trace of the girls can be found. Equally disturbing are the scenes on the rock which suggest something supernatural. There are eerie noises and ominous shots and the girls are last seen in a kind of trance. It’s spooky, but spooky real.
Like another Australian Criterion, Walkabout, the film isn’t really about the story on the surface, finding the missing girls or what happened to them (which is bound to frustrate some people, not me). Instead, the movie is interested in the blossoming of these teenage girls and the seemingly magical effect they have on everyone. These innocent young girls have become dangerous sexual beings overnight, one would assume to their detriment.
When the film shifts from the search and rescue portion of the story into the lingering aftermath, it does slow down a little, but loses none of its power. The rock scenes might be more fascinating but the shockwaves from the incident are equally important. What actually happened is deliciously debatable, but the film’s excellence and the director’s control is abundantly clear.