I’ve always been a fan of Australian filmmaker Peter Weir. A quick scan of his filmography reveals a unique variety of movies. Just consider 1985’s “Witness”, 1989’s “Dead Poets Society”, and 1998’s “The Truman Show”. Since then Weir has made just two other films – one of my personal favorites 2003’s “Master and Commander” and 2010’s excellent “The Way Back”.
Weir was his busiest during the 1970s when he put out seven movies. Among those was his 1975 mystery-thriller “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. It’s based on a 1967 novel written by Joan Lindsay who left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over her inspiration. Was it based on true events? Did any of this really happen? Weir taps into that same sense of mystery and never tips his hand one way or the other.
The film revolves around the mysterious disappearance of four girls. Set in 1900 Australian, the story begins at a girl’s boarding school as a group of students prepare for a Valentine’s Day outing to a nearby landmark known as Hanging Rock. They are accompanied by their math teacher Ms. McCraw (Vivean Gray) and Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse). Meanwhile the school’s stern disciplinarian headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) informs the quiet, introverted Sara (Margaret Nelson) that she isn’t allow to go.
While at Hanging Rock a group of girls go exploring. They are lead by the beautiful and adventurous Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert). Much like Hanging Rock itself, there is an ethereal aura that surrounds her – an almost heavenly suggestion that contrasts with the ominous foreboding geological formation. Mlle. de Poitiers taps into her mystery when she says “Now I know. I know that Miranda is a Botticelli angel”. It’s a cryptic reference to Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. She says this as the curious girls disappear from her sight. They do not return.
From there the film shifts to the search for the missing girls and the ripple effect it has throughout the school and community. What happened to them? Do some people know more than they are telling? Through this transition we get to know a young Englishman named Michael (Dominic Guard) who grows obsessed with the disappearance. He was among the last to see the group which raises suspicions and adds to the growing concerns of the local authorities.
The intentional ambiguity of the book certainly carries over to the film. When the novel first released it stirred quite the response. The movie rekindled it to a degree. The sheer mystery of the disappearance and the search for answers is fundamental, but Weir makes the emotional aftermath just as compelling. And whether it’s through his camera or Cliff Green’s script, the movie had me in its clutches. I fell into this beautiful nightmare and now I understand why the film is so revered.
VERDICT – 4 STARS