Picnic at Hanging Rock looks and feels like a nightmare. The visuals, diffused and dreamy, hint that we are watching something not quite real, and yet the film’s earthen appearance solidly bedrocks it in some sort of reality similar to our own. Its narrative asks many questions of its viewers but supplies no answers, meanwhile giving a steady stream of what might be clues as to the film’s true meaning and intention. This movie, and what a glorious movie it is, is difficult and complex, cruel and yet charming, and refuses to hold the audience’s hand or even give them a warm embrace. Just as a moment comes when we think, “Aha, now there will be answers!” all we find is silence, and what maddening silence it is.
The story takes place in Australia in the year 1901, one year before Australia officially ratified itself as a country separate from Europe, and revolves around British school girls which take a day-trip to a mountain known as “Hanging Rock.” All of this is key information in terms of the seemingly allegorical story told throughout this film. Anyway, while at Hanging Rock three of the girls and one teacher go missing: completely without a trace. This is in the first thirty or so minutes of the films hour and forty minute running time, and because of this one would naturally assume that the remainder of the film will involve the search for the girls. It does, of course, but the way which this search plays out is so unorthodox that one can hardly make any comparisons between this film and the myriad of other missing person movies.
You see, Picnic at Hanging Rock is extremely unconcerned with the disappearance of these school girls. In fact, I believe it is fair to say that while their disappearance is clearly at the heart of the narrative, it is of little consequence in terms of the film’s intended impact. There are very interesting allusions and themes running rampant throughout this film: some seem biblical while others seem political. Certainly there seems to be a play between the rough and tumble nature of the Australian “brush” and the people which inhabit it and the prim and proper British aristocrats who intend to make the brush their own. This play between the untamed wild and the extremely proper British society is possibly the main driving force in the film.
One character, a rough Aussie named Albert, remarks of the British society folks that they would die if they were left alone in the brush. This seems to be key to unlocking this film. The wild, untamed, desolate land of Australia will ultimately prevail against any who think they can tame it. The disappearance of the school girls is inconsequential because the landscape itself has swallowed them whole, never to be found again. Eventually one girl is found, and we find ourselves thinking that surly she will hold the answer, but even her reappearance into the story builds to nothing. Another side-plot involves a young lady who will be kicked out of the school because her legal guardian has not paid her dues. Even her fate, which appears to be completely separate from the disappearances, is left ambiguous and open.
While at the school these girls are in forests, long dresses, stockings, gloves, hat, scarves, socks, shoes, and petticoats, but when they arrive at Hanging Rock they shed their outer layers down to just their basic clothes: they run barefoot. The missing teacher, when she was last seen — although we never see her, it is only the witness, a student, who sees her — is said to be only in her underwear. Ultimately the film seems to be about the stripping bare of the prim and proper, the elite of society, and how the untamed wild is a greater force overall. The film strips everything British apart, feeds it to the Australian wilderness, and then proceeds to flaunt this fact in the face of every British character in the film. If one were to try and sum up the film in its entirety, with only a single image, I would choose one of ants eating the schoolgirl’s cake. It’s a powerful visual representation of the destructiveness of the outback and how some apparently thought it could be tamed.