April 9, 2009

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Peter Weir
Stars: Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Anne-Louise Lambert

What it's about. Set in 1900 Australia. The students at an all-girls boarding school are taken on a picnic near the bottom of Hanging Rock, a 500-foot volcanic structure that poses an obvious danger to amateur climbers.

Left behind are Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the unpleasant middle-aged owner of the school, and Sara (Margaret Nelson), an unhappy brunette pupil being punished because she is an orphan behind on her tuition.

It's a fine day for a picnic, and all goes well until four girls decide to leave the party to briefly explore Hanging Rock. They are Miranda (Anne Lambert), a radiant blonde goddess; Irma (Karen Robson), a hottie brunette but somewhat smug about it; Marion (Jane Vallis), an affected but nonetheless attractive blonde; and Edith (Christine Schuler), an overweight and frumpy student.

Edith tires and is left behind by the other three girls, who climb higher up the rock until they are out of sight. Edith then panics and runs down the rock. The genius spinster science teacher, Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray), then takes off for the rock to find the other three.

But none return, and the picnic party departs without the missing four. A search party fruitlessly searches the rock, and police interview two witnesses, earnest teenager Michael (Dominic Guard), the son of a wealthy Colonel, and his friend Albert (John Jarrett), a servant on the Colonel's estate. Michael becomes obsessed with the plight of the three missing schoolgirls. Mrs. Appleyard takes to the bottle.

How others will see it. Some will see this film and wonder, whatever did happen to the three missing persons? No need to fear, there are no skeletons within the crevices of Hanging Rock. At least, none from this story, since it is fictional. The film is based on a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay.

This film is highly popular among teenaged viewers, despite its slow pace and a slightly disappointing final half hour. Presumably, teens enjoy the innocent but nonetheless sensual behavior of the schoolgirls, as well as the hottie blonde younger teacher de Poitiers (Helen Morse).

But adults also enjoy the movie, as did critics of the day. Picnic at Hanging Rock was perhaps the first Australian production to receive widespread distribution in both England and the United States. It also made a name for its director, Peter Weir, who soon moved onto projects both bigger (The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Witness) and better (Gallipoli). Most of the schoolgirls were amateur actors, but Karen Robson went on to become a highly successful career as a lawyer, often with film producers as clients.

How I felt about it. The film loses its way once Irma is found alive near the top of the rock. Mrs. Appleyard becomes the lead character, changed for the worse by the recent tragedy. The school is in a deep decline as students and faculty withdraw. Mrs. Appleyard takes it out on Sara, a helpless young woman made unconsolable by the loss of her roommate Miranda, whom she was infatuated with. But it has to be said that the audience doesn't care much about Mrs. Appleyard, particularly since she has done nothing throughout the film that would arouse any sympathy.

Perhaps the most interesting subplot involves the friendship between Michael and the slightly older Albert. Despite his family's wealth and a privileged upbringing, the serious and sensitive Michael is more at home with Albert, an unreflective but practical and capable working class bloke.

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