It is St. Valentine’s Day in Australia, the year is 1900, and a party of schoolgirls from an exclusive finishing school are giddily embarking on a picnic excursion to a strange, sloping, Neolithic monolith 40 miles from Melbourne (February is summertime “Down Under”).
Three students and one of the teachers disappear, with no trace.
The subsequent search, interrogations of witnesses, amnesia of one of the girls who is later found, and the strange marks on the foreheads of the picnic survivors add eerie fascination to the story and its effect on the young ladies and their schoolmistress (brilliantly played by Rachel Roberts), resulting in a suicide and another disappearance.
An introductory caption informs us the story is true, although any explanations for the mystery have receded into history and remain obscured by conjecture and superstition.
It’s a ghost story played in blazing sunshine and from the start, it is clear that director Peter Weir will provide no solution.
Life is full of these unexplained mysteries and what makes this one so special is that it allows viewers to fit their own pieces into the puzzle.
A feeling of doom, of helplessness, pervades the pristine sweetness of the girls in their gestures, in the deliberately laconic pace of their activity.
Occasionally life’s hidden power surfaces in the rosebud beauty of the girls in their white Victorian petticoats, in the sexual repression of the teachers, in the rock’s connection to aboriginal magic.
Still, we are denied easy answers. Picnic at Hanging Rock depends greatly on the imagination we can bring to it.
This presence of the unknown makes us share more palpably the tearing down of the lives of those who must face it.
The school matriarch is hit the hardest. She is by no means a sympathetic character, but she is an unbudging pillar of vindictive principle, able to overcome anything in the normal, predictable course of events.
Even the building she moves around in is one of symmetry and flawless order (location shooting took place at Martindale Hall near Mintaro, north of Adelaide in South Australia).
Weeping for the loss of her best teacher, it’s the mystery of what happened that is her final undoing, not the absence of the teacher.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film about life in all its provocative lushness, with an intelligent ear to the rumble of the unknown forces beneath.
Dianne de Potiers