Conformity, Corsets and Chaos: Picnic At Hanging Rock

Peter Weir’s landmark New Wave drama remains as haunting as ever


When Australia was first colonised by the British in 1788, The Empire was at the beginning of its ambitious, and destructive, policy of making the world like Britain. But what Joan Lindsay’s novel, Picnic At Hanging Rock, would explore and show, was that Australia, with its Aboriginal population and wild landscape, could never be like Britain. That the facade of “civilisation” and “civility”, would crack at the smallest tap, and that’s exactly what happens when three students from a prestigious finishing school, an obvious representation of that ridiculous colonial facade, disappear during a Valentine’s Day picnic. 

Joan Lindsay apparently experienced vivid dreams and wrote in a frenzy when the story took hold of her. It’s combination of mystical exploration and pseudo historical structure has made it one of the most significant Australian novels of all time; comparable to The Thorn Birds in its global literary impact. Lindsay’s own life mirrored that of her story and characters: like the young women who find themselves in the staid, strangled world of Miss Appleyard’s Finishing School; Lindsay was married to a conservative man who did not tolerate her interests in mysticism and the occult. 

According to Terrence O’ Neill, a scholar and friend of Lindsay’s: 

“It was clear that [Joan] was interested in Spiritualism and longed for some spiritual dimension in her life, but she didn’t feel safe bringing that side of her out in front of her husband. So I think she channelled it into her writing. I know she was very interested in Arthur Conan Doyle and his belief in and theories about Spiritualism, nature and the existence of spirits.”

The bedrock of Picnic At Hanging Rock is how the suppression of two precolonial histories collide and rupture the fabric of Victorian sensibilities: that of the ancient aboriginal history and the almost as ancient women’s history. These two histories are ones that colonialism, with its focus on white male domination, sought to suppress and exterminate. Although Aborigines are not main characters in either the book or the film, a fact for which both have been criticised, their history plays a vital role in the story. Kathleen Steele writes in her essay Fear and Loathing in the Australian Bush: Gothic Landscapes in Bush Studies and Picnic at Hanging Rock, about how Lindsay’s novel makes the reader aware, often uncomfortably so, of the fact that there is “something deeply unknowable and terrifying in the Australian landscape”, because of the coloniser’s ignorance about, and refusal to acknowledge that Aboriginal history is ingrained in the country.

Peter Weir’s film adaptation gives the story this same mysterious, deeply complex sensibility. Nothing is ever really revealed to the viewer, and the audience is often left with the sense that the characters do not know much more than them because of their colonial blinkering and fear of the “other”. Even when one of the girls returns from Hanging Rock, missing much of the restrictive trappings of her Victorian garb; she cannot articulate what has happened to her, because even she doesn’t fully understand what she has experienced. In the film, Hanging Rock is a place that seems to exist on a mystical fault, perhaps even in a long suppressed part of an Aboriginal dream time. It is a place that the colonisers cannot tame, and become increasingly fearful and suspicious of as events transpire, largely because it is a place that represents their own fragile, mostly make believe, hold on the landscape and their place in it.

Miranda: Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place.

Weir creates a dreamlike atmosphere throughout the film, from filming the girls looking at themselves in mirrors and Michael, an acute representation of the kind of male The Empire has reared, looking at a swan gliding over a man-made pond. Mirrors are perhaps a representation of the portal through which the girls will disappear, never to be found again. A place where their souls may become trapped or freed. Weir allows the interpretation, like in Lindsay’s novel, of what happens to the girls to lie with the viewer; seemingly entirely aware that the audiences’ prejudices and ideas about how society should function, and what role women should have within it, will determine how they interpret events. It is while looking in a mirror that Miranda, the main character of sorts, who everyone seems the most compelled by throughout the story, from her teachers to her school mates; informs Sara, a younger girl who is passionately, almost obsessively, in love with her, that she must find someone else to love. It is unclear whether or not Miranda means it because she will soon leave the finishing school and embark on the expected course of marriage that awaits her, or if she has some kind of premonition about what awaits her at Hanging Rock. 

Much of the story revolves around Miranda’s choices, and Weir adds to this impression by often focusing the camera on her face as she looks wistfully about her, seemingly in her own world. Even when she has disappeared, her visage haunts other characters in photographs and memories. The use of both emerging technology, like the increasing popularity of photo portraits, juxtaposed with the ancient wilderness of the Australian landscape, further reinforce the impossibility of the existence of British ideals in a place that seemingly has an endless, mysterious memory of places and events far greater and older than The Empire can fathom. 

The fascinating aspect of both the novel and the film is that the event, that of the girls disappearing, which propels the entire story, is very brief. The majority of the story revolves around how the event impacts those affected, most notably Miss Appleyard, Sara and Michael. But Weir takes great pains to film the disappearance itself and the picnic which proceeds it, with the utmost artistic care, and also to leave breadcrumbs for the viewer about what will transpire. Even if you know little about the story and nothing about the novel, there is a sense right from the beginning of the film that something important, something life changing, is about to unfold in this isolated place.

One of the teachers, Miss McCraw, who goes missing along with the girls, speaks almost as if in a trance at the beginning of the film, detailing the ancient knowledge of Hanging Rock and what great, unknowable geographic circumstances came about to create this enormous, jutting rock face. 

Only a million years ago. Quite a recent eruption really. The rocks all round – Mount Macedon itself – must be all of 350 million years old. Siliceous lava, forced up from deep down below. Soda trachytes extruded in a highly viscous state, building the steep sided mamelons we see in Hanging Rock. And quite young geologically speaking. Barely a million years…

And the Rock really does look as if it is populated with faces, which Weir hones in on throughout the film. Faces that seem to observe what transpires, possessing the silent knowledge of what really happened to the girls and Miss McCraw, but both being unable and unwilling to share. The disconnect between nature and Victorian society is evident throughout the film, not only within the behaviour of the characters themselves, but through how Weir depicts nature itself. He shows both its beauty and its deadliness, especially in a place as inhospitable to humans. This is also achieved through the brilliance of Russell Boyd’s cinematography. 

The majestic nature of Boyd’s cinematography makes much of the film look as if it has been painted rather than filmed. The soft, yellow filters which are utilised whenever Miranda is shown to the harsher ones used when the girls climb the Rock, as well as the red-tinged blackness of Sara’s nights at the finishing school; create a world that seems to unfold within a dream. The girls’ trek up Hanging Rock is one that is punctuated by masterful direction by Weir, rich cinematography by Boyd, and The Ascent written by Bruce Smeaton, is mysterious, thrilling and tragic. There can be no mistaking that these girls will come to an uncertain end, especially as they lie in the hot midday sun and one of them comments that, “Except for those people down there, we might be the only living creatures in the whole world.” 

While Hanging Rock explores the world that existed before colonial occupation of Australia, it also explores the desire to escape that colonial structure. All of the girls who go missing long for escape from the life that has been set out for them, a life which consists of wife and motherhood in a society that values women for little more. When Irma is eventually discovered by Michael she is not wearing her corset. Much is made of this due to the girls’ upper class position in society, as is the fact there is no evidence of rape or molestation. This is a vital discovery to investigators, both because they now know that a sex crime was not the reason for the girls’ disappearance; but also because the girls are somehow still valuable within the colonial structure because they are still pure. This concern with being untouched, unblemished, almost overrides the concern with the girls possibly being dead. It seems that they should rather be dead than blemished, somehow made lesser by sexual interference. The fact that Irma seems to be mentally fractured beyond repair is only of concern to Mlle. de Poitiers, the girl’s French and art teacher. 

The types of women who exist within the universe of the film also show the damaging rigidity of colonial ideas about femininity. Miss Appleyard, the headmistress of the finishing school which the girls attend is the picture of Victorian suppression and the failure to adapt. She wears dark, heavy clothing in a climate that is absolutely not suitable for them and drinks excessively when she cannot control the situation in which she finds her establishment’s carefully crafted reputation of respectability crumbling before her unforgiving eyes. It is unclear whether or not she is later responsible for Sara’s tragic and mysterious demise, but what is clear is that in the end, her inability to tame the landscape in which she has tried to import British Empirical ideals, drives her to the edge. Her death is the strange end to a mystery that only Hanging Rock knows the answer to, and a representation of the death throes of The Empire and its stranglehold on its colonies. The story is set only fourteen years before the First World War, when the sun would begin to set on Britain’s global power. 

Miss Appleyard is portrayed to brilliant effect by Rachel Roberts, a prolific Welsh actress, who won the BAFTA twice. She leaves an indelible mark on the film through her portrayal of Miss Appleyard, who begins the film utterly self assured and in control, but whose psyche eventually fractures irreparably. Although she is perhaps most associated with this role now, it was one that was quite unlike those that she had played before, and at the time of her casting Weir was seen to be making an unexpected choice.

Marion: A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.

Like Miss Appleyard, the character of Michael is the representation of Britain’s attempts to maintain its image in its colonies. It is also suggested that Michael is perhaps a closeted homosexual, although this is not made anywhere near as obvious as in the 2018 miniseries of the same name. Michael’s obsession with finding the missing girls is not framed within the idea of a romantic endeavour, but a desire to solve a mystery and perhaps prove his masculinity. Although Michael’s motivations for seeking them out is never fully explored within the film, it is clear that it may very well be linked with the colonial obsession to somehow prove that the landscape, however unknowable and wild, is not greater than its conqueror. This is, of course, proven to be a complete fallacy when Michael almost dies at Hanging Rock due to dehydration and sun exposure and is saved by Albert, a young estate servant who is the only person in the story who has truly become naturalised to the environment around him. Michael and Albert are presented as complete physical opposites of one of another, with Michael in stiff collars and even stiffer manners, whilst Albert is portrayed as wearing only the necessary clothing to maintain some form of civility. Of the two, it seems far more likely that Albert should be the hero of the piece, but that role goes to Michael, longing to prove his worth within society and escape the stuffy, mausoleum setting of his aunt and uncle’s British transplanted estate.

Dominic Guard’s portrayal of Michael is extremely poignant, almost tragic in its delicacy and softness in a landscape and colonial setting that does not allow such facets in anyone, especially a man. Guard and John Jarrett, who plays Albert, are perhaps the closest we come to a romantic pairing in the film, as Michael’s interest in Miranda is that of an observer with a beautiful painting. She is the centre of his obsession because she, as mentioned earlier, is a magnetic force for all involved; but Michael never speaks of or views her in a prototypical romantic manner. His closeness to Albert is far more inline with that, and is one of the most fascinating and also heartbreaking facets of the film’s plot; mirroring to some extent that of Miranda and Sara’s due to class consciousness and differences. It is later revealed that Sara is Albert’s long lost sister, but instead of staging a reunion, the story once again goes in an unexpected direction and denies this closure. 

The representation of femininity and masculinity in Picnic At Hanging Rock is through the disruption of the Victorian ideals, built up through the frivolous nature of education in finishing schools and colonialism as a boy’s serial adventure. The girls disappearing is the ultimate rebellion against the fate that awaits them. It seems that they are destined to rebel against what Victorian society demands of them: subservience to what has, and seemingly always, will be. But their fate shows this to be a fallacy, for in the end they decide their own fate, even if they are almost compelled to do so as Irma observes when she says that Hanging Rock was “Waiting a million years, just for us.” To a certain degree, Picnic At Hanging Rock gives its female characters the freedom that Gothic literature had in the 19th and early 20th century, allowing young women the opportunity to become something more, in some ways, than what they were expected to be. Within the Australian Gothic atmosphere of the story, the girls and the landscape subscribe to a path that is unknowable to men, specifically white colonial men. Michael, for example, cannot fully the solve the mystery because of who he is. It seems that perhaps the only ones who really come to eventually understand the mystery at Hanging Rock are Miss Appleyard and Sara, but they both die tragically and mysteriously, reinforcing the enigma of that place. 

In the end, Miranda’s words ring true, “What we see and what we seem, are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” The reality of Picnic At Hanging Rock is no reality at all. Weir portrays this throughout the film. He does not try to impose any answers on the story and in the end the film is far better for it. It leaves the audience with the sense that perhaps they, too, can eventually realise some kind of freedom in their own lives. That Hanging Rock is a representation of the possibilities of a life unlived. That we do not have to become what others endeavour to mould us into. That we can live with some kind of purpose known only to ourselves.

Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: Cliff Green
Music: Bruce Smeaton
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Editing: Max Lemon

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