Picnic at Hanging Rock, novel by Joan Lindsay, film by Peter Weir

October 19, 2021 at 12:30 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Historical fiction)

  Picnic at Hanging Rock is an Australian film released in 1975. I don’t know exactly when I first saw it, although I suspect it was not long after that release date. I do know that ever since that initial viewing, it has haunted me. That this is the case for many others who have seen it, I feel sure.

Set in Australia in the year 1900, this is the story of a group of adolescent girls who attend Appleyard College, a live-in prep school of sorts. It’s an elite institution – or at least, one with pretensions to such a distinction. It is presided over by the eponymous Mrs Appleyard, a classic battle-axe type, played convincingly by Rachel Roberts.

As the film begins, we learn that the girls, along with a young French teacher and their math tutor, are being treated to a special outing: a picnic at the foothills of a striking geological formation known as Hanging Rock. They are excited and eager; they apparently have very few occasions like  this to look forward to and enjoy.

The chief substance of the film concerns what happens at Hanging Rock. If you are thinking that it cannot be good, you’re quite right. I will only say at this point that it may the strangest, most evocative tale I’ve ever seen on screen.

In the Wall Street Journal last month, author David Bell recommended the book, written by Joan Lindsay, on which the movie is  based (The title is the same.):

This Australian novel has been overshadowed somewhat by its 1975 movie adaptation—a classic directed by Peter Weir—but it deserves better. On the surface it’s a mystery story, set in 1900, about a group of students at a girls’ boarding school who disappear in a remote area of Australia. But affixing the label “mystery” to this tale is inadequate preparation for its complexities.

I immediately downloaded the book – $8.99 on Amazon Kindle. (The local library does not own it; no surprise there.) To be concise, it was not just good. It was terrific. The writing was wonderful. Lindsay spins her narrative with a light, ironic touch that seemed, to me, exactly right for the material. This kind of storytelling, the subtle deploying of a particular tone that enhances the reading experience, is a mark of mastery of the craft of novel writing, a quality I find sadly lacking in much contemporary fiction.

Here, the girls and their two chaperone/ teachers get their first glimpse of Hanging Rock. Irony has receded, replaced by a vivid sense of wonder (Edith is one of the pupils, normally a rather whiny chatterbox.):

The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated  with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb.This splendid spectacle, as if by prearrangement between Heave and the Headmistress of Appleyard College, was brilliantly illuminated for their inspection. On the steep southern facade the play of light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, other grooved and fluted by prehistoric wind and water, ice and fire. Huge boulders, originally spewed red hot from the boiling bowels of the earth, now come to rest, cooled and rounded in forest shade.

  Peter Weir was  given this book by an Australian TV personality whom he  barely knew. She’d seen an earlier film of his and thought he could make an even better one from this novel. In his own words, in an interview:

I read it from cover to cover, was gripped by it and  the  fact that there was an unsolved mystery. And I was burning with it, I mean it was just like electricity through my body.

What a great description of the way in which inspiration can grab an artist and not let go until it is fulfilled. It helped, probably, that he was in his early thirties at the time – “…to be young was very heaven!” as Wordsworth says.

Several aspects of the film need to be pointed out. First, the cinematography by Russell Boyd is outstanding. Boyd won the BAFTA Award for this achievement. (BAFTA is the acronym for The British Academy of Film and Television Arts.) Never having been to Australia, I was spellbound by the beauty and strangeness of the place.

It needs to be pointed out that Hanging Rock is a real place; it’s some fifty miles north of Melbourne:

This huge geological formation looms above all the actors in this drama. It is sinister, implacable. It is witness to the truth of what happened that day in 1900.

The acting was excellent, plus I feel like I have to mention the meticulous re-creation of life in the 1900s as it was then lived Down Under. The costumes make a major contribution to this effect. The girls especially, in their white muslin dresses…

The soundtrack was likewise a careful assemblage of original music composed by Bruce Smeaton, Gheorghe Zamfir playing ethereal melodies on his pan flute, and short classical selections from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. Over and over, we hear the adagio movement from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Emperor.” This music is, to me, almost unbearably poignant, surely one of the most beautiful and evocative works in the classical repertoire. And here I can’t resist placing my favorite video performance. It features the legendary Maurizio Pollini, with his son Daniele Pollini conducting the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. The adagio begins at 21:00, but do yourself the favor of listening to the entire piece, and seeing, at the conclusion, father and son together acknowledging the applause.

For the interview with Peter Weir, click here.

For the insightful and informative BAFTA commentary on the  film, click here.

The film has an alternate ending, which did not make the final cut. I wish it had. Watch the film first, then watch this clip, and see what you think.

Happily, our local library owns several copies of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s also available on HBO Max and Amazon. You’ll want to try your local library first, though, as those latter two options are somewhat costly.

Reading the novel and then revisiting the film has been a very gratifying experience. And am I still haunted? Oh, yes…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Michelle Ann said,

    I am glad you enjoyed this, as I frequently recommend it! I started reading it with trepidation, as I was worried it might contain gore or horror, which I dislike, (none is included) and found it a wonderful book. You summarised it well, and I particularly like the way it highlights that the aftermath of any disaster, especially when their are unresolved issues, can leave a long legacy of problems and grief well after the event has left the public eye.

  2. Tina Opines said,

    Great post!

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