FILM Appreciation

Picnic at Hanging Rock: film that helped define Australian cinema

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:34pm

Peter Weir was at the forefront of the New Wave of Australian cinema that emerged in the 1970s and focused almost exclusively on issues of identity. As an emerging nation, Australia had started to realise that its role as a mere colonial outpost was redundant. It had to work out what it wanted to be.

Films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock were framed to highlight the perspective that most of the population Down Under were expatriates. And the rock around which the action here takes place is an ancient looming force of nature that draws a bunch of presumably innocent schoolgirls and their teacher into its shadow one sultry afternoon - and then swallows them whole.

Led by the ethereal beauty Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) - at one stage referred to as a Botticelli angel - the girls are shot in the pivotal scenes gliding through the undergrowth, lured by who knows what towards who knows where. Hanging Rock itself represents the unknown, primal forces that pulse through what is an ancient land. And the people who are supposed to protect these innocents - the teachers, the men - can do nothing to stop them.

Four vanish with only one piece of torn lace left behind, and when one reappears a few days later, she can remember nothing of what has happened. There is a sniff of scandal (the girl who is found has somehow lost her corset), but it is the loss of this group of innocents that soon wreaks havoc on the community.

That not much really happens is all part of the film's genius. Weir uses simple techniques to heighten the tension. There are those shadows and the dazzling, brutal sun. There's the sense of oppressive heat and the stifling sounds of the Australian bush, as if nature's chorus is closing in. At times it feels as if the breath is being sucked out of you. Audiences in Australia and beyond (the film screened at Cannes) fell under its spell. The soundtrack adds to the sense of other, especially the haunting pan pipes of the central theme.

That the mystery is never solved simply adds to the allure. Adapted from Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel, it is surprising how many viewers believe the story is based on fact. But it's not, and the author later produced an extra chapter cut from the original text that goes some way towards explaining things. There's little doubt the tale works better without it.

This was the film that announced Weir's talent to the world, and helped the Australian industry find its focus and forge its own identity.

Picnic at Hanging Rock Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert, Vivean Gray​ Director: Peter Weir