PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)
Australian Film Commission - BEF Film Distributors Pty Ltd - McElroy & McElroy - Picnic Productions Pty Ltd - South Australian Film Corporation /
Director: Peter Weir
Script: Cliff Green
Exec. Producer: John Graves / Patricia Lovell
Producer: Hal McElroy / Jim McElroy
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Editing: Max Lemon
Sound: Greg Bell / Don Connolly / Joe Spinelli
Art Direction: David Copping
Artistic advisor: Martin Sharp
Costume Design: Judy Dorsman
Makeup: Elizabeth Mitchie (makeup artist) / Jose Perez (makeup supervisor)
Original music: Bruce Smeaton / Gheorghe Zamfir (pan flute)
Non-original music: Johann Sebastian Bach / Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (A Little Night Music, excerpt) / Ludwig van Beethoven (Piano Concerto No.5, excerpt)
Cast: Rachel Roberts (Mrs Appleyard) / Vivean Gray (Miss McCraw) / Helen Morse (Mlle. de Poitiers) / Kirsty Child (Miss Lumley) / Tony Llewellyn-Jones (Tom) / Jacki Weaver (Minnie) / Frank Gunnell (Mr. Whitehead) / Anne-Louise Lambert (Miranda) / Karen Robson (Irma) / Jane Vallis (Marion) / Christine Schuler (Edith) / Margaret Nelson (Sara) / Ingrid Mason (Rosamund) / Jenny Lovell (Blanche) / Janet Murray (Juliana) / Wyn Roberts (Sgt. Bumpher) / Kay Taylor (Mrs. Bumpher) / Garry McDonald (Const. Jones) / Martin Vaughan (Ben Hussey) / Jack Fegan (Doc McKenzie) / Peter Collingwood (Colonel Fitzhubert) / Olga Dickie (Mrs. Fitzhubert) / Dominic Guard (Michael Fitzhubert) / John Jarratt (Albert Crundall) / Vivienne Graves / Angela Bencini / Melinda Cardwell / Annabel Powrie / Amanda White / Lindy O'Connell / Verity Smith / Deborah Mullins / Sue Jamieson / Bernadette Bencini / Barbara Li
On Valentine's Day, 1900, three girls and a teacher from an exclusive boarding school mysteriously disappear while picnicking in the bush. One girl is later found unharmed but the others vanish without trace.
"Weir's next film was Picnic at Hanging Rock (1974). Based on the disappearance of a number of school girls on St Valentine's Day in 1900, Weir's film creates an aura of incipient sexuality and brooding menace, opting always for atmospheric imagery over narrative drive. Mystery pervades the film and the sense of an ancient supernatural presence is evoked through a gentle accumulation of detail (stopped clocks, disturbed flights of birds, watching animals, schoolgirl mysticism, half-formed coincidences) and by the looming alienness of Hanging Rock and the bush that surrounds it. On the level of imagery, the disappearance of Miranda and the others is presented as a sexual burgeoning and a release - but throughout, all suggestions, whether verbal or imagistic, are left unconfirmed. The audience is presented with fragments of meaning, and is continually being disoriented from the world of solid truths. A sense of Otherness dominates, utilising the horror of suggestion rather than event. Picnic at Hanging Rock could have lost itself in mindless picturesque evocations; instead Weir's sure control offers a satisfaction which transcends both the minimalist narrative and the film's verbal content."
From Killer Koalas: Australian (and New Zealand) Horror Films - A History by Robert Hood. First published in The Scream Factory (US) in June/July 1994; ed. Bob Morrish; also published in Sirius, 1994 (over two issues); ed. Garry Wyatt.
Atmospheric, ambiguous, richly symbolic and beautifully realized, Picnic set new standards for local film production, became an international box-office success, and is recognised as a milestone in Australian cinema. It made the reputations of both Weir and DOP Russell Boyd, setting Weir on the road to becoming one of the top international directors of the last 25 years. It also proved conclusively that an Australian-made film with an Australian cast, based on an Australian book, could succeed overseas.
Beautifully filmed by Boyd and camerman John Seale (now both among of the world's most sought-after cinematographers) it was shot on spectacular bush and mountain locations on and around the real Hanging Rock at Mt Macedon, a volcanic outcrop in the Macedon ranges, northeast of Melbourne, Victoria. Other locations were filmed in South Australia. The dreamlike, hazy effect that gives the film its distinctive look was reportedly achieved by placing a piece of bridal veil over the camera lens. Boyd won the British BAFTA "Best Cinematography" award in 1979 for his work on the film.
Most of Weir's films have some indelible image associated with them. In The Cars That Ate Paris, it was the famous 'killer' VW Beetle studded with huge spikes. In Picnic it is undoubtedly the slow-motion images of the girls climbing the rock to the accompaniment of ethereal pan-flute music. While shooting the film Weir was introduced to the album Flutes de Pan et Orgue recorded by Georg Zamfir in the early '70s with French musician and producer Marcel Cellier, and released on Cellier's own label. Weir approached Zamfir to provide original music, but he refused. In the event, Weir was forced to buy the rights to some of the music from Zamfir's Cellier album (it was later re-released in America as Picnic At Hanging Rock to cash in on the film's success). The film made Zamfir's internationally famous (so much so that Cellier adopted the pan flute as the logo of his recod label) it and created a vogue for this previously little-known instrument. Typically, Weir received little credit for this.
Cliff Green adapted his screenplay from the celebrated 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay (1986-1984). Producer Patricia Lovell secured the screen rights in 1973, and after two years in search of funds, the production began in February 1975 with backing from the Australian Film Development Corporation, B.E.F. Distributors, and the South Australian Film Corporation -- the SAFC's investment being conditional on having most of the film shot in South Australia. The total budget was around $450,000 -- remarkably cheap even by the standards of the day (this would be around $5 million today) -- and by comparison, the ABC's Anglo-Australian miniseries production BEN HALL, filmed at roughly the same time, cost more than $2 million!. The six-week shooting schedule began with scenes at Hanging Rock, followed by location shooting in South Australia at the historic Martindale Hall mansion near Mintaro (used for the exteriors of the school), at Strathalbyn, and at the S.A.F.C.'s studio in Adelaide.
Distributed by B.E.F., the film had its world premiere at the new Hindley cinema complex in Adelaide on 8 August 1975. It became an immediate commercial and critical landmark in Australian cinema. Its popularity in Australia was followed by international critical acclaim at Cannes in May 1976, and it also sold well in England and Europe, and later in the U.S.A.
Lindsay's book was already famous when Weir made the film, and many elements of the story originate in her experiences. Contrary to popular belief however, the story is not based on actual events. Melbourne journalist Tim Colebatch notes some interesting connections between Lindsay's own life and the events of the book:
- Hanging Rock is an outcrop of the Macedon Ranges, which a hundred years ago was one of the favorite summer holiday spots of Melbourne's upper class. The Governor of Victoria (the Queen's representative) had an official summer residence at Mount Macedon. In the sense that the theme of the film is the collision between the stifling order of British upper-class culture and the sensual other-wordliness of the Australian bush, nowhere would it have been more evident than at Macedon, where the two worlds met each summer. The young Joan, daughter of a Supreme Court judge, was part of the summer excursion of the elite to the Macedon region.
- Her family were also friends of the artist Frederick McCubbin, who lived there. She would have picnicked at Hanging Rock herself in that era; later in life she lived for a while not far away at Bacchus Marsh.
- Her husband Sir Daryl Lindsay was director of the National Gallery of Victoria for 15 years, and among its collection is a painting entitled Picnic at Hanging Rock, made in the same era by the impressionist E. Phillips Fox.
- In 1919, soon after she graduated from the private girls' school, Clyde, it shifted from Melbourne to Mount Macedon. That provides the basis for a girls' school near The Rock
- Joan and Daryl Lindsay were married on St Valentine's Day 1922
- The Lindsays kept no clocks in their house, because Joan despised the world of mathematical precision and believed it devalued the richness of experience. See also her autobiography, Time Without Clocks, also published by Penguin Australia
- the Lindsay clan into which Joan married was a family of artists who waged war on the repressed sexual attitudes of that era. The most famous of them, her brother-in-law Norman Lindsay, was a controversial figure whose work featured voluptuous nude women, often cavorting with satyrs or men, or engaged in scenes of orgy/rape. (He also lives on largely through a very different work, the children's classic The Magic Pudding, which he wrote and illustrated.) Sexual awakening was something of a family theme for the Lindsays.
At the centre of both book and film is the mystery of the disappearance, and it has been the subject of great speculation over the years. Interestingly, Lindsay's original manuscript actually included an explanatory epilogue, which revealed that Miss McGraw and the girls simply became trapped in a cave when a boulder fell across its entrance, entombing them. When the book was published, this final chapter was widely omitted, and was not released until 1987, three years after Lindsay's death.
When the ending was finally revealed, the Sydney Morning Herald published several theories written by well-known Australians. Most -- including the star, Anne-Louise Lambert -- preferred to leave the mystery intact. Philip Adams suggested they disappeared into a time warp, while Tom Keneally offered a more prosaic solution -- they were murdered by the French teacher!
The 'unsolved mystery disappearance' motif is also very real and compelling one for Australian audiences. The Azaria Chamberlain case is perhaps the most celebrated, but two equally strange and shocking events occurred in close proximity to the appearance of both the book and film, and it's possible they might have influenced both works in some way. In 1966, the year before the publication of the novel, Australia was rocked by disappearance of the three Beaumont children, who vanished while on a trip to Glenelg Beach in Adelaide on Australia Day. Then in 1973, the year preparations for the film were being made, two more children, Joanne Ratcliffe and Kirstie Gordon, disappeared from a crowded football stadium in the centre of Adelaide. Although it is assumed that all five were kidnapped and murdered, none of the five were ever seen again and both cases remain unsolved to this day.
Weir: "... I had to be approved by her (Joan Lindsay). On the way to visit her at Mulberry Hill, her farmhouse where she lived with her husband, the literary agent who had set up the meeting warned me not to ask her about the truth of the novel. Of course I knew I would. I wanted to get it out of the way fairly early. I said, looking at the literary agent, 'Forgive me', turned to her and said, 'I'm not supposed to ask this, but is it true?' She looked very tense and looked at the agent as if 'didn't you tell him?'; then said, 'I really don't want to discuss that, please don't ask me again.'
She appeared one day during the shooting, and I kept my distance from her because I could hear her voice drifting over - she was a charming woman by the way - but I could hear her saying, 'Oh, but I didn't imagine him looking anything like that'. And then I saw her after the film had come out and she was besieged by the press, and she said to me, 'Oh, the press keep asking me about the truth of the matter and I don't know what to do. I don't know whether I should tell them or not.' And I said, keep your secret. It was never of interest to me whether it had happened literally or not. Fairly clearly it hadn't happened literally, otherwise there would have been some mention in the newspapers of the day, a scandal like that! It was a metaphor of some kind, for Joan Lindsay. People disappear. And what is it to be 'disappeared'?; to be neither alive nor dead. Why is it so important to bury people, why do we need to see their bodies? It led me to do research in that area, particularly the great numbers of grieving people, widows and mothers after the first World War, whose sons and lovers and husbands disappeared, in enormous explosions. Possibly they were in a hospital with a loss of memory, which was written about -- shell-shocked, and they may wake up one day and say who they are. And they lived in this twilight between life and death. So that was enough of a mystery for me.
After Picnic was released, the State Library of Victoria was besieged with letters from people requesting more information about the supposed disappearances. Staff at the Library searched The Age, The Argus and the Woodend Star for February 1900 but found no reports of missing schoolgirls. In the novel picnic took place on Saturday 14 February 1900, but Valentine's Day that year fell on a Wednesday. Lindsay also quotes a supposed Melbourne newspaper report of 14 February 1913 in the last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which suggests that the mystery will remain unsolved forever. But no such report was found in The Age, The Argus or The Herald for that date.
Variety's review at the time praised the film's acting as being "generally of a high standard". The principal cast is superb, including Welsh-born actress Rachel Roberts. The only non-Aussie, she was a last-minute replacement for British actress Vivien Merchant, who fell ill shortly before her arrival in Australia. Roberts gives one of her best performances as the rigid principal, Mrs Appleyard. Her portrayal of the character's disintegration in the wake of the girls' disappearance is terrific in both senses of the word. (Ironically, Roberts herself suicided in 1980). Helen Morse is a picture of elegant sensuality as the French teacher, Mlle de Poitiers, Vivean Gray is great as the repressed spinster-governess Miss McCraw, and Anne-Louise Lambert launched her career with her compelling performance as the ethereal and free-spirited Miranda -- a huge advance on her previous role as a snooty schoolgirl in Grundy's TV soap Class of '74!.
Also of note are Garry McDonald (Const. Jones) who starred in The Aunty Jack Show and was soon to become famous in his alter-ego of Norman Gunston; Jack Fegan, the original star of HOMICIDE, as Doc McKenzie; Jackie Weaver (BELLBIRD) as one of the school staff, and John Jarratt (who later married PLAY SCHOOL host Noni Hazlehurst) as the stableboy Albert. Tony Llewelyn-Jones was specifically praised in Variety for his role, "a standout cameo as a school gardener" Interestingly, Weir revealed that, of the schoolgirl group, Lambert was the only professional actor, with almost all the rest being first-timers.
The film has been subject of more column inches in books and magazines than almost any movie in Australian history, partly due to its importance, and partly due to its mystery and style. Picnic is generally acknowledged as the flagship of the revival of the Australian film industry in the mid '70s, and it was very well received overseas -- although Weir famously met stiff resistance from ignorant Hollywood studio executives who were (predictably) infuriated by the unresolved ending:
Weir: "...the only country that couldn't take the film was America. We could not get a release. Distributor after distributor looked at it, complimented the technical side of it, and said 'But it doesn't end!' ... One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he'd wasted two hours of his life - a mystery without a solution!"
[Tabula Rasa, 1994]
Jan Dawson interviewed Weir for Sight & Sound magazine not long after the Picnic was released, and he spoke at length about his approach to making the film:
"My only worry was whether an audience would accept such an outrageous idea. Personally, I always found it the most satisfying and fascinating aspect of the film. I usually find endings disappointing: they're totally unnatural. You are creating life on the screen, and life doesn't have endings. It's always moving on to something else and there are always unexplained elements."
"What I attempted, somewhere towards the middle of the film, was gently to shift emphasis off the mystery element which had been building in the first half and to develop the oppressive atmosphere of something which has no solution: to bring out a tension and claustrophobia in the locations and the relationships. We worked very hard at creating an hallucinatory mesmeric rhythm, so that you lost awareness of facts, you stopped adding things up, and got into this enclosed atmosphere. I did everything in my power to hypnotise the audience away from the possibility of solutions... There are, after all, things within our own minds about which we know far less than about disappearances at Hanging Rock. And it's within a lot of those silences that I tell my side of the story."
"I could have placed more emphasis on the outpost of Empire in the bush, the invaders in an alien landscape, the repressive nature of this little piece of Empire; but as the atmosphere resulting from the disappearances became my central interest, these themes disappeared from view... Yes, you could see them, as elements in all my films, though I'm only conscious of one recurring theme. I find people in isolated situations fascinating. Obvious things - long boat voyages and waiting rooms and lifts - unfailingly intrigue me because people reveal... all the things that aren't being said. Not so much in their relationships as in their unconscious. And I like situations where I can get these things out quickly. Nature isn't consciously a theme with me either. It's just that, in the most practical way, I prefer to make films away from the city. It's not that the wide open spaces open me up but that I find them intensely claustrophobic."
[Dawson, Sight and Sound, Spring '76]
Although opinions were (and still are) sharply divided, the majority of viewers love the film-- "haunting" is the most frequent description -- although some dismiss it as a turgid, impenetrable soapie with art-house pretensions. It's not a totally perfect film, and interestingly Weir himself saw room for improvement -- he went against the usual practice and actually trimmed seven minutes for his 1998 "Director's" Cut edition for DVD.
Aussie critics of the time adored it, lauding the film's serious tone, its delicacy and its artful construction. In that sense, Weir pulled off a coup -- PICNIC was certainly tailor-made for critics and film-buffs who liked their movies clever and clean. It was the exact opposite of earlier films like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple, which were both contemporary satirical comedies with a strong sexual component. Even though they were major box-office hits (Alvin was the biggest grossing Aussie-made film to date) both were almost universally loathed by local critics, like Padraic McGuinness:
"Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is easily the most mature and skilful Australian feature film yet, will, I hope, be at Cannes next year. It would have a very good chance of taking one of the major awards. And it will, thank goodness, demonstrate that Australian film-makers are capable of much more than the coarse and vulgar rubbish like Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple."
[P.P. McGuiness National Times, 20 October 1975]
It's particularly instructive to compare the fortunes of PICNIC and STONE.
The success of Picnic made Patricia Lovell one of Australia's busiest producers. She had had long experience in television, and was a familiar face to generations of Australians who knew her as "Miss Pat", the compere of ABC's beloved children's show MR SQUIGGLE. She also worked as a reporter on the current affairs programme, TODAY, for the Seven network, and as an actress in series such as SKIPPY and HOMICIDE.
Picnic was Cliff Green's first feature film screenplay, but he had enormous experience in television and radio, including serials, children's programmes and documentaries for the ABC. He had been a staff writer for three years at Crawford Productions in Melbourne, working on episodes of HOMICIDE and MATLOCK POLICE. He later worked as a freelance writer and contributed episodes to many ABC series, including RUSH and THE NORMAN LINDSAY FESTIVAL. A quartet of his plays, under the group title of MARION, was produced by the ABC in 1974 and they were praised by critics for their perceptive portrayal of a young schoolteacher (again played by Helen Morse) in a small country town.
Weir's subsequent credits are numerous and famous, and they include huge Aussie and international hits Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society, and the Oscar-winning The Truman Show, was well as less successful (but no less compelling) works like The Last Wave, Mosquito Coast and Fearless.
Any web search will find innumerable links for this film, but Voyager's PAHR web page is a good place to start, with comprehensive links to many articles and other resources:
HYPERLINK "http://w3.one.net/~voyager/picnic.html" http://w3.one.net/~voyager/picnic.html
Brett McKenzie has penned an interesting article about his solution to the mystery of Hanging Rock: HYPERLINK "http://www.mck.com.au/users/Brett/picnicSolution.htm" http://www.mck.com.au/users/Brett/picnicSolution.htm