I originally wrote this review on July 7, 2002, but I had seen it a few times before and a few times since. But I am definitely due for another viewing, as I haven't watched it on my upgraded system yet, and it is a true "visual feast". Boy, when I came out of the theater after watching this the first time, how fascinated (and perplexed!) I was by the experience.
One of the amazing Australian director Peter Weir's first films, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an evocative, lyrical, and mysterious foray into the unknown. Set during a hot summer's day picnic for the young students of Appleyard's Academy for Girls, at the foreboding and primitive place called Hanging Rock. No, this isn't a western, featuring a lynch mob, but rather a beautifully filmed, hauntingly scored movie about repressed sexuality, strange happenings, and, uncomfortably enough for some people, no easy answers.
[=== SPOILER ALERT ===]
The movie opens with the girls of the Academy, all around high school age, reading romantic poetry to each other. Shot in soft focus, from oblique angles, the real world seems far away. It is Saint Valentine's Day and the annual picnic to the huge outcropping called Hanging Rock is today, and everyone is excited. Being Down Under, it is the middle of the summer, and the heat and lethargy are perfectly captured for the viewer as the carriage heads out. While there, four of the girls take a forbidden walk into the Rock, but only one returns. Also missing is one of the teachers. A search is quickly mounted, while the negative repercussions on the school's image have their deleterious effect. A week later, one of the girls is discovered by a boy who had seen them disappear and is wracked by nightmares about them. The discovered girl is in remarkably good condition and is still, in the vernacular used in the movie, "intact".
[=== END SPOILER ALERT ===]
You know this movie isn't about answers when, in the opening splash scene, you are given a complete synopsis of what is to come. And if you need neat answers to questions posed in a movie, this won't be a movie for you, because Weir doesn't give you any. There are perhaps clues as to what went on, but they point in many different directions. This is a movie about atmosphere and repressed primitive carnal longings, not about solving a mystery. Which, by the way, is not based on a true story, despite what is said on IMDB and the implications at the beginning of the movie. It is based on a novel, although I have to admit after I first saw this movie, many years ago, I did spend some time at the Boston Public Library searching the archives for mention of it, as in one place, Ms. Appleyard says it is being reported in newspapers worldwide.
The most beguiling of the girls is Miranda, played with ethereal loveliness by Anne-Louis Lambert. She later appeared as the slightly more worldly but still incredibly lovely Mrs. Talmann in The Draughtman's Contract.
This is a movie that absolutely positively requires complete attention. It is better seen in a dark, quiet movie theater, but if you have to watch it at home on this beautiful, sharp, DVD, be sure to unplug the phone and turn off the lights. Let the incredible music, both classical and Zamfir's Pan Flute, wash over you. Feel the heat, hear the cicadas, sense the emotions and wonder about the motives. Then, I think, you'll begin to have an idea of where Peter Weir wants you to go.
This is the movie that started me on my love of all things Australian, including a trio of contemporary directors, Weir, Fred Schepisi, and Bruce Beresford. This love culminated in a 3 1/2 week trip Down Under, that remains among my most cherished memories. Unfortunately, despite staying in Melbourne an extra day, we never made it to Hanging Rock, at a park just north of Melbourne. A movie that needs to be seen and felt at a visceral level, Picnic at Hanging Rock won't disappoint.