Softer than satin was the light

Joan Lindsay’s mysterious novel Picnic At Hanging Rock is both captivating and intrinsically beautiful in Peter Weir’s film adaptation. Perhaps at first the storyline could be mistaken for simplistic but there is a haunting element which is never quite unravelled. Set in the opening of the twentieth century, a group of school girls visit the local mountains for a picnic in celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. The absence of a number of their party upon their return to the school is the chillingly ambiguous centre of the plot. The landscape, the girls themselves and the dreamlike quality of the film all aid in representing a bridge between freedom and confines.

There is something both liberating and terrifying in the expansive shots of the idyllic landscape. At once they strike a contrast between potential and oppression, whilst in contrast, the school itself narrows the girls into a specific model. Hanging Rock seems to present listless possibilities, with the closeness of nature enhancing the beauty of the girls even more, but also exposing their innocence as a vulnerability. The school though, with its rigid rules administered by the headmistress Mrs Appleyard, refines the girls, making them reliant upon the friendship of one another in order to blossom and understand their sexual transitions from child to adult.

Sarah, the only girl to be left behind from the picnic, as a punishment, represents a tortured soul trapped within the boundaries of society. Unlike the other girls she does not experience the freedom outside the school gates, and this is represented through her attachment to Miranda and the sense of sadness and longing that emanate from her. Her character remains tragic and her need for progression, which is constantly stifled, is ultimately brought to the surface by the end of the film when her dead body is found hidden in the gardens surrounding the school. Her character is an example of the suffering administrated by societal modes, such that remains repressed and ignored right up to the end.

The girls that go missing on the rock appear to somehow bring hope amidst tragedy. Although their bodies are never found and no explanation is given, the characters of Miranda and Marion evoke a dreamlike quality of escapism. They become sheltered and concealed within the sharp slopes of the rock, with the iconic shot of their backs disappearing through a gap in the walls seeming to present, certainly an end, but at the same time a release. In a different way to Sara’s ending then, here the girl’s souls seem to be set free amongst nature to an uncomplicated spiritual or ‘other’ world. Although their development is likewise stunted abruptly, they become an emblem of eternal purity and beauty which can never be tarnished, as any memories of them to reader, audience and character alike remains ultimately innocent, with the close-up shots of Miranda in particularly becoming a hauntingly iconic goddess presence that can never quite be forgotten.

Picnic At Hanging Rock, 1975

The reluctance of Edith to pursue the other girls further into the Rock perhaps is an example of fear to oppose society’s conventions and laws. Although she returns safely to the school, little appears to become of her character as she merely slips back into its stern regime: a passive presence; one that never hints of any other achievement.

Irma’s character presents yet another level to the story, being the only girl to be found after disappearing on the rock. She comes close to this spiritual freedom and yet she is also the only girl shown to reach maturity, explored through the later scenes of her with Michael and Albert. Her return to the school is met by a rabid emotional storm from the other girls who demand to know what happened to Miranda and Marion. Irma’s exit from the school though shows, in a similar way to Sarah’s death, how crucial the girls’ relationships with one another are. The disappearances leave both Sarah and Irma isolated and alone, although Irma is able to escape from the tragedy arguably due to a personal development triggered in her time on the Rock; a development which is never made available for the girls within the school itself.

Overall, the film is both melancholy and hopeful, opening perhaps more questions upon each viewing, which remain unanswerable even now. The eeriness, which is only enhanced by the repetition of the pipe music and the slowed-down, pastel layered shots, is something that with remain on the audience’s memory even after the credits. The fact that the film never reaches closure could yet be another hint at the futility to ever completely bridge a gap between liberty and restrictions within society. The characters of the girls remain tragic but also beautiful and strikingly meaningful, in such a way that undoubtedly leaves a viewer with some lasting impression.

What inspired me: The way the film is unanswerable and leaves many different ideas to each viewer. The attention to detail with the music, camera shots and angles, and the art is truly beautiful and fits perfectly with the nature of the novel and the mood. Also, the clothes of the girls are wonderful.

Originally published 28th April 2013