Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Peter Weir, 1975
With films such as The Mosquito Coast, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander under his belt, I've long held that Peter Weir is among the most talented and under-appreciated filmmakers in the world today. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir's second film, is another great film to add to that list. The movie not only put him on the map as a talent, but also made the world take notice of Australia and their then-burgeoning film industry.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is the story of a class of school girls on a day trip to Hanging Rock in the year 1900, the tail end of the Victorian era. Four of the girls wander away from the group, traveling deeper and deeper into the mountain, drawn to it as though they were mesmerized. Only one of the girls comes back. One of the teachers goes in to look, and she disappears as well. The townsfolk, in the wake of the incident, begin to have a harder and harder time keeping themselves together. No explanation is ever given to the disappearance, only tantalizing and unsettling clues. When one of the girls is returned, with no memory of what happened, it's all the more disturbing that there is still no sign of the others.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a horror movie unlike any other. Nothing jumps out at you. There's not even anything tangible for the viewer to be scared of. Instead, there's a near overwhelming sense of dread and anxiety just beneath the surface. It is a ghost movie without a ghost.
But there's more to it than that. The movie is also about these mannered, put-together Victorian people trying to keep themselves civilized in the face of the overpowering, pervasive wild of the Australian Outback. From the virginal schoolgirls in white dresses being lured into Hanging Rock by a force beyond their control (the one who returns is later seen in a red dress, we all know what that means), to the fact that the teacher is last witnessed running into the mountain in her knickers, the movie is brimming with primal and sexual overtones, with dreamlike cinematography and symbolic nature imagery throughout.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. It gets under your skin. I found myself thinking about it for days. Peter Weir began a long and amazing career with this movie, and it's among the best of his films that I've seen. I can't recommend it enough.