Images of Australia: 100 Films of the Australian Cinema (1991)

Book author Neil Rattigan

Picnic at Hanging Rock entry


St. Valentine's Day, 1900: girls from Mrs. Appleyard's College of Young Ladies takes a picnic excursion to a local geographic site, Hanging Rock. One girl, Sara, is prevented from going by Mrs. Appleyard. At the Rock, four girls, Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Edith, go off to explore; with the exception of Irma, all disappear. A teacher, Miss McCraw, is also missing. All search efforts prove fruitless. Michael Fitzhubert, haunted by the memory of Miranda, commences his own search. With the help of his uncle's groom Albert, Michael finds Irma on the Rock. Gossip and speculation cause students to be withdrawn from the school. Sara, who was in love with Miranda, kills herself after being told she will be sent back to an orphanage. The mystery is never solved.


Much was (and still is) made of the lack of resolution to the central narrative enigma of Picnic at Hanging Rock; the mystery of the disappearance of the girls and Miss McCraw (and of Michael's and Irma's experiences on the Rock) is never explained. but, in the Australian context, there really is no necessity for an explanation. The bush has held, since the earliest times of European settlement, a dread fascination. it has become the overriding natural element credited with creating Australians as a race apart from others. There is also a hidden side to the cultural perception of the bush; a place of primeval terror, implacably hostile to human existence. This attitude is sometimes given metamorphic form in the Australian cinema (Razorback, for instance). But this fear of the outback is usually resistant to precise articulation. That is why Picnic at Hanging Rock is so successful. It does not attempt to locate the supernatural malevolence of the bush in comprehensible fears; animals (as in Razorback or The Long Weekend (1977)), brutalized men (as in Wake in Fright), or even the ecological conditions themselves (as in Walkabout. The bush is simply the bush, a place where beautiful young girls and down-to-earth mathematics teachers vanish without trace. The how and why are not merely inexplicable; they don't have to be explained.

Yet this conception of the "terror" of the bush needs to be tempered with the recognition that Picnic at Hanging Rock does not suggest that anything awful has happened to the girls who disappeared. They appear to go to their fate with calm assurance, even eager acceptance. Certainly, Edith is driven to hysteria when the other girls "enter" the Rock; but it is the effect on others-Mrs. Appleyard, Sara, Michael-that is most devastating. The malevolence of the bush is not so much in itself but as a result of the incompatibility between the bush and human beings.

Picnic at Hanging Rock also captures superbly the ambiguity of the bush; on one hand, the terror that lurks within it; on the other, its incomparable beauty. Although many films of the New Australian Cinema make startlingly effective use of the undeniable cinematic qualities of the Australian landscape (in many respects unlike landscape anywhere else in the world), few have done so more successfully than this film. The haunting, supernatural quality of the landscape is captured cinematically in a way that continues to stuns audiences.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is consciously constructed with an eye toward pictorial composition. Many sequences commence with action in frozen tableau as if in a painting, and this highly structured mise-en-scene is integrated with a deliberately hesitant approach to dialogue (especially by the use of silence) and with an editing style that utilizes long dissolves and a rhythm that frequently holds shots and scenes slightly beyond their "natural" moment.

The structuring principle behind all the compositions is the "look": the look of characters within the narrative, especially of the girls toward each other in the opening sequences-and again specifically toward Irma when she returns to the college after her rescue. Characters within the film are always looking, sometimes at each other but not infrequently seemingly at nothing at all. It is ironic that, with all the looking, no one "sees" what happens to the girls. The audience is positioned by looking as well; the composition of the images is constantly constructed not simply (or even) to "see" the actions but so that the audience looks at the object of the camera's gaze. The camera often looks at the Rock, so there is the inescapable feeling that the Rock looks at the participants in the drama it has precipitated.

The feeling of the Australian bush as a living entity is nowhere as completely and brilliantly created as in this film. The entire aesthetic construction of the film is integrated into its themes, its content, its meaning; its aesthetics may almost be said to be its meaning. What is unusual in this pictorilization of the bush is in its concomitant construction as a site of sensuality. There is something vaguely sexual about the manner in which the girls "embrace" the Rock, go (in)to it like a lover. But there is an undertone of repressed sexuality to the whole film, which surfaces only occasionally; the question of whether Irma has been sexually assaulted and, of course, the hothouse of barely suppressed sexuality in the college itself. And it should not be overlooked that the events take place on St. Valentine's Day. As with Peter Weir's next film, The Last Wave, it is by no means clear what all this means-if anything. The menace of the bush in Picnic at Hanging Rock is as much sexual as anything else.

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