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Three students and a school teacher disappear on an excursion to Hanging Rock, in Victoria, on Valentine's Day, 1900. Widely (and incorrectly) regarded as being based on a true story, the movie follows those that disappeared, and those that stayed behind, but it delights in the asking of questions, not the answering of them. Written by
David Carroll <email@example.com>
Although the images have stayed with me since I first saw Picnic at Hanging Rock some 20 years ago, the power to instil a strange sense of loss remains. The revised director's version released in 1998 unusually cuts seven minutes from the original as, according to Pat Lovell (executive producer), Peter Weir wanted to remove any pretty romances and speed up the final act. The sound quality has been enhanced and the look improved through colour regrading, but sadly a couple of key scenes involving Irma (Karen Robson) have been omitted. We are told at the outset that some of those who start out for the St Valentine's Day picnic in 1900 are never to return, and, even though various clues are shared with us, no attempt is made to solve the puzzle. Miranda (Anne Louise Lambert), who provides a voice over, based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, sets the tone at the beginning with, `What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream', and the film goes on to concern itself with the aftermath of the disappearance and the impact on all involved with those missing. It explores an apparently idyllic way of life that is not what it first seems, how this false paradise is fragile and how it is shattered by the breakdown of established order. Tensions and hysteria all surface, exposing the suppressed passions that are the reality of life, as well as the claustrophobic atmosphere of the affluent Victorian European life style in an alien land. This theme is further expressed by the virginal white dresses worn for the picnic, which seem out of place in this environment and represent the stifling restrictions placed on the young women. The layers of dress and petticoats the girls have to wear, combined with the various shots into mirrors, as if into another dimension, also reflect the story's many strands.
Russell Boyd's award winning cinematography is stunning and actively encourages you to feel the summer heat. The beauty of the actresses and the sounds of the Australian bush, under the sinisterly foreboding gaze of the Rock, with its blatant phallic symbolism, seduce you so that you will more feel a sense of the horror, as Edith (Christine Schuler) does. The flashback at the end, poignantly coupled with the adagio from Beethoven's piano concerto No. 5 (Emperor), leaves you with a sense of loss of youth and virtue. Peter Weir subsequently recreated this impression in the final scene of his equally outstanding Australian feature `Gallipoli'. I am also reminded of the effect produced by Jane Campion (The Piano) in her early work `Two Friends', where the tale ends in the past when the friendship is at its closest, making the passing of innocence feel more painful with ageing and the passage of time.
Cliff Green's script is not only faithful to Joan Lindsay's narrative but also complements it exceedingly well, although dialogue is often replaced by visual impression and unnecessary details are excluded to maintain the sense of mystery the author intended. However, the novel's literary mistake regarding Felicia Hemanes' famous Victorian recital piece is repeated, which is actually `Casabianca' (about the Battle of the Nile) and not `The Wreck of the Hesperus' by Henry Longfellow. Discrimination is displayed by Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Robert's fantastically monstrous harridan) towards Sara (Margaret Nelson), a forlorn orphan in love with Miranda, who is kept back from the picnic for not learning the poem, whereas Irma's position as heiress obviously carries influence, as clearly on the Rock she can only quote the first line. Sara is shown pity by the housemaid, Minnie (Jacki Weaver), whose own sexuality is realised with the handyman, Tom (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), in stark contrast to the general ambience of repressed desire.
Miranda's sentiment that `Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place' is demonstrated by Joan Lindsay who based her fictional account on Hanging Rock, a sacred Aboriginal site, near Mount Macedon in Victoria. To provide added authenticity Peter Weir filmed at the Rock during the same six weeks of summer. Aborigines believe time is not linear and Lady Lindsay eschewed the notion of man-made time, hence the title of her autobiography `Time Without Clocks'. At Hanging Rock both the watches of Ben Hussey (Martin Vaughan) and Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) stopped at twelve o'clock. Incidentally 14 February 1900 actually fell on a Wednesday, not a Saturday, unless the author used the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian, so that the eleven days were not lost?
The open-ended nature of the fable is deliberate to mirror life where we may learn or uncover some secrets but never understand the mystery. Plenty of extraneous facts and unexplained details are related, such as the absence of scratches to Irma's bare feet, yet identical injuries appear on her head and Michael's (Dominic Guard), her joint rescuer with Albert (John Jarrett), very redolent of the `X Files'.
The film is beautifully shot with haunting music, exceptionally well cast and acted, and tightly directed. The ever excellent Helen Morse is an inspired choice as Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French mistress and the girls' confidante, who describes Miranda as a Botticelli angel from the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, and Peter Weir specifically uses the image of the Birth of Venus. In fact Miranda, Irma and Marion (Jane Vallis), the three senior boarders who vanish, are evocative of the Three Graces, who dance in attendance to Venus, in Sandro Botticelli's Primavera. Anne Louise Lambert's portrayal of Miranda (an ironic reincarnation from her famed role in 1973 as the bed-hopping nymphomaniac in the Australian soap `Number 96') captures the vision perfectly with her ethereal loveliness and enigmatic smile, and is reminiscent of the knowing look on the death mask of the renowned `L'Inconnue de la Seine', who coincidentally died around 1900 in Paris.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a masterpiece of its time, and still rates as one of my favourite films today.
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