Monday, February 10, 2014

Movie Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock

In the year 1900, a girls’ high school in an underpopulated area in Australia goes for a rare outing, a picnic, to be held at Hanging Rock, halfway into the bush. While there, four girls start to climb the Rock to the top. They disappear. The school panics. A search, with police and bloodhounds, is conducted. It’s unsuccessful. After a couple more days, two teenage boys do their own search. They discover and rescue one of the girls, now near death. The found girl remembers nothing of the trek up the Rock. The other girls haze her, accusing her of mischief, murder. Is she holding back information? The school, and community near it, emotionally implodes. The rigid principal (who in profile is a dead ringer for Tenniel’s Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland) loses it and starts to drink. One young woman, who had been in love with Miranda, one of the missing girls, becomes inconsolable, and disconnects. Flashbacks of Miranda climbing the Rock suggest an angel ascending into the beyond. Time passes. Hanging Rock becomes a makeshift tourist spot.

This sublime movie, directed by Peter Weir, was based on a novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay. The author would never say whether or not the novel was based on a true story.

Virtually everything works here. Directing, cast performances, cinematography, script, music- all conspire to create a mood and a story that is near perfect. Take music, for instance. Zamfir’s panpipes (which would go on to blight so much in the later seventies and eighties) are perfectly lean and sparse in the movie. They illustrate, and heighten, the heat of the outback and the mystery. Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto’s slow movement, with its lyrical, meditative and upward-moving progression, greatly enhances the girls’ progress up the Rock. Camerawork expertly conveys the harshness of the land and the cloistered nature of the school.

There are several qualities in Picnic that bring to mind Forster’s A Passage To India, aside from the obvious Europeans maladjusting to the colonies setting. That novel’s Adela Quested is overwhelmed by the Marabar Caves, especially their overpowering echo. Picnic’s girls are apparently swallowed up by Hanging Rock, and the soundtrack features at crucial points the sound of a gigantic boulder rolling by, which is more or less how Forster described the sound in Adela’s troubled head. There is also a moment, on the trip to the Rock, when a teacher, noting the extreme age of same, states that, by comparison, human lives are insubstantial, even meaningless. This recalls Passage’s Mrs. Moore who, also disturbed by the Marabar Caves, exclaims that life may have no meaning. I don’t want to go on too much about this; you certainly don’t need to have read A Passage To India to fall under the spell of Picnic at Hanging Rock. A more direct ancestor to the movie may be Deliverance, which came out a couple of years before and which dealt in similar themes of innocence lost, mourning and the implacability of nature. Michael, dressed in the English manner with top hat and kid gloves (could anything be less appropriate for the bush?), co-leads the second search for the girls and ends up ragged, almost mad. Nature will not be denied.

What did happen? Were the girls kidnapped? Murdered? Did they fall down a hidden crevice? Were supernatural forces involved? We don’t know. Sarah, the girl in love with Miranda, recalls her saying, before they left for the picnic, “I won’t be here much longer.” How much should we read into this? Does it matter? There is something powerfully eldritch and numinous about Picnic At Hanging Rock. A mixture of wonder, dread, frustration and helplessness fills the movie.

The cicadas buzz. The panpipes play. The sun beats down. The clocks in the school tick. The questions continue to come, but no answers do. It brings to mind the Bob Dylan lyric: “Nothing was delivered/ And I tell this truth to you/ Not out of spite or anger/ But simply because it’s true…”

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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