If you go into this movie expecting answers to your multitude of questions, you’ll only be disappointed and disillusioned by the lack of explanation provided here. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is as beautiful and mysterious as the Australian Outback that serves as it’s backdrop. Lovely, virginal school girls in white. Four make the ill-fated climb up Hanging Rock one Valentine’s Day, 1900. But do four come back? After one stunned girl (Christine Schuler) descends the rock unaccompanied by her companions, a all-encompassing search is declared for the young ladies.
Dandyish youth Michael (Dominic Guard) finds himself sucked in by the girl’s disappearances and searches for them with the reluctant help of his working-class friend Albert (John Jarrett) But to no avail. The teens are quite purely and simply… gone. Meanwhile, bereaved outcast Sara (Margaret Nelson) mourns for her only friend (maybe something more? the film obliquely asks) Miranda (Anne Louise Lambert,) vanished on the now infamous Hanging Rock, while her coarse headmistress (Rachel Roberts) fights to break her spirit.
Visually “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is spectacular, featuring a sumptuous palate, gorgeous indoor sets, and breath-taking scenery showing the Australian Outback in all it’s starkly inhospitable splendor. It isn’t really a movie about characters and feelings as it is a eerie evocation of a time and place, plagued with locals who are more concerned about the young women’s virtue in the wake of such an event than their happiness or psychological health.
When a girl (the only one of three) is found stunned and catatonic, everyone is obsessed whether she is ‘intact’ (i.e. not ravaged by a ill-intentioned Aussie) to a not-quite-normal point. Yes, rape is a terrible thing, but the townspeople’s interest has less to do with genuine concern over Irma (the girl)’s sexual or physical well-being and more to do with their own long-buried repression and diseased small-town curiosity.
Peter Weir establishes an uncanny/unnerving vibe here, a portrayal of small-town Australia so deeply felt yet faraway and surreal that it begins to feel like a passing dream. Anyone who watches this movie is likely to wonder “What is this really about here?” Is it about sex, or frustrated lack of such? Is it about small-town ignorance to the point where the disappearance of young people is something to something to excitedly speak of over toast? Is it about lesbianism?
When the headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, speaks of the middle-aged teacher (Vivean Gray) who vanished with the others while looking for her missing pupils, she specifically compliments her ‘masculine energy.’ Is Miss Appleyard a lesbian, so deeply mired in the throes of repression that she takes her frustration out on the similarly-inclined Sara? Maybe the Rock is a metaphor for something else, something that similarly can’t be contained or explained.
There’s really not much to directly say about this movie without doing some considerable reading between the lines, which might take multiple viewings and discussions. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the main plotline is left frustratingly open to interpretation. Those of you who love mysterious, dreamlike films will probably be all-too-willing to partake, while those who need an up-front explanation should run away from “Picnic at Hanging Rock” lest they be frustrated and exasperated to it’s focused ambiguity. “Picnic…” is a classic for a reason, but it’s not for everybody.