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Movie Reviews

Picnic at Hanging Rock  

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of those movies I take an almost sadistic pleasure in. Any time you see one of these period movies, you expect everything to be upright and proper, so it is a cool experience when a "period movie" becomes something entirely different. A good example is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which a seemingly charming story about an eccentric teacher and her charges becomes an allegory of fascism. Picnic at Hanging Rock, however, is much more sinister, as it involves a mysterious disappearance at an all-girls school in Australia which implies many disturbing possibilities.

I'm bringing up an odd comparison here, but the legend surrounding the story in which this movie is based is almost like that which accompanied The Blair Witch Project a few years ago. The author of the original novel hinted that the story may (what a tease!!) be factual, and noble citizens searched for facts. Nothing was found, of course, just as many poor suckers discovered that nothing happened in Burkittsville. The movie, as well, suggests fact, although careful consideration of the end credits will reveal the usual legalese: No similarity to real people, places, etc, may be inferred, yadda, yadda, yadda. Of course, to me, it matters little if the movie is based on fact (and I never give credit to such a statement anymore, in any case), only if it is worthy as a piece of art.

At an all-girls school, tucked away in the pristine nature of Australia, the classmates are about to go on an outing to the Hanging Rock. Nothing educational, really; just a little picnic and other activities 'enjoyed' by the upper-crust. The headmistress gives the usual warnings to her charges; that nobody shall go near this dangerous area. As with any movie about teenagers and dangerous situations, we all know that somebody will wander off! In fact, what actually happens is that four of the girls wander off in around the caves and crevices of the rock, and only one girl comes screaming back. And, incredulously, one of the teachers goes missing too, apparently to search for the girls. The rest of the movie details the search for the girls, and, primarily, both the creepy hints and innuendo and the odd behaviours of many of the characters.

You may think that, on the basis of that last sentence, this is a whodunit kind of movie, but it is not like that. In fact, this movie is a really nasty puzzle which (be careful about what you read here!) is never solved. The last few shots are among the most baffling I`ve seen for a "conclusion", and you will feel less informed and more chilled by the film's end. This is not a whodunit; it's an examination of repression.

Many nasty little things materialize, almost all concerning sex. Much is made of the doctor's examination of the girl saying "She is very much intact", and we all know perfectly well what he's talking about. And there is also that same girl's giggling account of the teacher passing by in only her undergarments. All things seem to point to a sex crime, especially when we have already witnessed a proper, repressed teenager in romantic awe of the most prettiest girl of the group before deciding to "wander off". The first thing I think of is that this is the repressed boy with a dirty secret. No arrests are made, however, but the idea of repression - inside virtually everybody - lingers. The only sort of passion that exists on-screen is between a maid and a stableboy - both of the lower-class, significantly -, while all of the upper crust are uptight in one way or another, and have to compensate. Nothing is spoken directly (these are proper ladies and gentleman, of course), but only a fool would not be able to guess at some of the activity.

The most clear of all the issues simmering inside this seemingly innocent girls' school is that of the love that dares not speak its name. There is some ambigious, and suspicious, conversation between Miranda (the 'prettiest' of the girls) and Sara, an orphan sent to the school. Miranda tells her that Sara has to learn to love somebody else, for she will be gone soon. And Sara keeps an overtly melodramatic vigil in Miranda's absence. There are also some other suggestions of lesbianism in a number of other female characters, including the headmistress (listen to her drunken abomination of the missing teacher near the end).

There is, in fact, an implication that the girls may have planned this disappearance, or that somehow the rock took these girls away from a world which represses them. A supernatural feeling is evoked as the picture progresses (well-enchanced by the soundtrack), and a number of shots will throw you off for sure, although you will never quite put your finger on them.

All in all, Picnic At Hanging Rock is a very good film, even as it is utterly, utterly confusing and mysterious. The film is beautiful to look at, it is deceptively comforting in its pace, and will keep you in suspense, and will leave you thinking at the end. This movie is a near-classic of its kind, and is deserving of multiple viewings.

David Macdonald

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