Picnic at Hanging Rock is a classic 1970s Australian film by Peter Weir, based on a novel from a few years earlier. The basic story is a mystery, but both the novel and the movie tell it with a lot of ambiguity, some surrealism and hints of supernaturalism, and no clear resolution. The novel is presented as if it were a true story or based on a true story, but it’s not, though many readers don’t realize that. The matter has been researched fully, and while the location (Hanging Rock) is a real place in Australia, none of the people, events, etc. bear any resemblance to anyone or anything real.
The story is set in 1900, at an upper class girls’ school. (I took it for a high school. I later read it is a college. In any case, they look to be teenagers.) It’s a frightfully rigid and proper place, made manifest to almost a caricaturish degree by the fierce headmistress with her giant bun. It’s a “school” where, because they’re women, and upper class women at that, the students only study things like music and sewing, and always proper “deportment.”
One day, much of the student body and a couple of staff members go for a day long picnic in a nearby hilly area with a large rock formation (the Hanging Rock of the title). Four of them go off to explore. They’re mostly enjoying themselves, though one of them is complaining about wanting to go back, and at times lags behind. After a while, as three of them walk toward yet another crevasse in the rock, the lagging girl screams at them not to go. Her manner is too frantic for it to just be a complaint that she’s impatient that they get back to the others, yet the scene is shot in such a way that it doesn’t look like she could possibly see anything in front of them through the crevasse, or certainly they would have seen it if she did.
She runs away in terror. Meanwhile, it turns out one of the staff members at some point also left the main group, though no one seems quite sure when or why.
The three girls and the staff member have evidently disappeared without a trace. Though a week later, one of the three girls is found alive near where they had last been seen, in far better shape than if she had been lying there the whole time exposed with nothing to eat or drink. (Plus there had been search parties combing the area the whole time.) The person who apparently had stumbled across her first—a local lad who had become obsessed with the case and was searching on his own—was found before her bleeding and in a daze, clutching a piece of her (or one of the girl’s anyway) garment.
The evidence of what happened is minimal and conflicting. There are hints of a sexual assault—the surviving girl is missing her corset, the frantic fourth girl spontaneously remembers she saw the staff member in the distance walking without a skirt—but a medical examination pronounces the girls who survived “intact.”
The girls did see some people in the distance on one or more occasions while exploring, so there’s the possibility that they’re involved somehow.
The obvious folks to talk to are the lagging girl who ran back screaming, and the girl who was found after a week, and for that matter the guy who somehow was injured looking for them and ended up with a piece of cloth in his hand. But it seems to me the questioning of them is slight and unaggressive. It’s pretty much accepted from the start that they’re “hysterical” and just too much in shock to offer anything as witnesses. When they do remember something, it’s treated as a bonus.
Perhaps that’s a commentary on how women, especially young women, weren’t taken seriously in roles like that of a witness, where you have to take anything they say with a grain of salt since they’re too prone to emotion and fantasy.
Or maybe it’s a fear that indeed something sexual was done to them—consensual or otherwise—and that’s just unthinkable for rich teenage white girls. So it can’t be left out of the inquiry entirely, but it’s approached gingerly, and not pushed if they say they don’t remember what happened. Maybe like it’s a relief that they don’t remember, or perhaps, “We’ll play along and pretend to believe you don’t remember, so none of us here in Victorian Australia will have to talk about rape or associate girls like you in any way with sex.”
Though it’s more in the feel of the film than in the substance that’s actually spelled out, the other theme you can infer is running through the whole affair is a kind of mystical, possibly supernatural fudging of time and space—the “dream time” of the Aborigines. A couple of watches stop at noon on the day of the picnic. People have dreams and nightmares that seem to provide clues about the case. The day of the picnic itself, many of the people from the school take leisurely naps during the day and seem a bit disoriented as to how much time has passed. Early in the film, one of the girls who later disappears tells a classmate that she won’t be around much longer, as if she’d had a premonition. (Actually I’m cheating on that last one; I read later about it being a possible premonition. I didn’t pick up on it as having any significance when she said it; I assumed she just meant that she was graduating that year.)
My experience of Picnic at Hanging Rock was definitely affected by having read beforehand that it’s a very ambiguous movie with no resolution to the mystery. On the negative side, that made it harder to care about any of the clues or anything, because I already knew that not enough is revealed to explain what happened to the girls anyway, so why bother trying to follow along and figure it out? No point in trying to spot the answer when you’re told in advance there isn’t one. On the positive side, at least the lack of resolution wasn’t an unpleasant, frustrating surprise.
So the whole time, in effect I knew the movie wasn’t going anywhere.
That, coupled with the fact that this is one of those movies with far more atmosphere than action, should have made this more of a chore to sit through. But while it did indeed drag for me in places, it held my interest better than I would have expected.
Aside from the unsolved mystery, it’s kind of interesting watching the headmistress and the school crumble in the wake of the tragedy.
Unlike a lot of viewers—or at least highbrow movie critics—I’m not a fan of ambiguity and a lack of an ending. But in this case I seem to have hated that less than usual. The eerie feel of the film, the mystery of it, drew me in to a decent degree, in spite of knowing that it wouldn’t be solved. The movie grew on me the longer it went.
For some reason I ended up sort of liking it.
I was interested enough, in fact, that I read a fair amount about it on the Internet afterward. It turns out the novel originally had an ending, but the author was prevailed upon by the publisher to drop it so readers would be left wondering what happened to the people who vanished, what caused the survivors to go into shock and be unable to reveal what they’d seen.
But then that final chapter was released about twenty years later—well after the movie. It turns out the author had planned to provide an unambiguously supernatural explanation of the disappearance. It was indeed to be a time warp sort of thing.
I actually think the intended ending seems pretty cool, as a science fiction or horror film sort of thing. I don’t know how it would have worked in the movie. I’m not sure if I would have liked the movie more with that ending, but I’m quite confident that most critics would have liked it less.