Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Picnic at Hanging Rock: rebalancing the dress

This landed on my desk yesterday, February 14. A FB friend posted about seeing it as a Valentine's Day film and my world came tumbling down. I've been an admirer of the film from its release in the 70s and no viewing subsequent to that has altered my rating of it. However well I thought I knew the film I had never thought anything of the importance of the temporal setting of the story. A group of virgins in white dresses leave their cloistered protection to enter into the threatening realm of nature, some of them forever.

Virgin girls, virgin century, virgin nation (one year almost to the day before Federation) and big hungry nature. I heard a recent podcast in which two people reviewed this film favourably but complained about it being too British to be regarded as an Australian film. This bizarre misreading got me so angry that I almost ... wrote this then rather than now. What a point-missing thing to say. Australia in 1900 considered itself Britain's backyard; its customs, culture, manners and class system were as British as cucumber sandwiches and croquet. By contrast, the broader Australian presence is ably handled by John Jarrat (who would later surface in Wolf Creek as the AntiCrocodileDundee), Garry McDonald and Jackie Weaver etc.

Contrast, say I! Picnic at Hanging Rock happens in a realm that might as well be a settlement on another planet where the invaders cling steadfastly to their identiy as Earthlings. Australia in 1900 was such an other planet. The Britishness is intentional and entirely appropriate. It would unrealistic without it. Contrast only the behaviour of the children of the local town as they run tauntingly after the girls' carriage with the vestals within remaining expressionless and protective of a status of which they are forbiddingly aware. And on travels the shipment of sacrifice from halls sighing with girlish whispered poetry to the venomous inferno of the new world.

Once there, the European saint toasted with ginger beer in enamel mugs, alpha girl Miranda plunges the knife into the pink heart of the cake whose pieces will soon feed a colony of very grateful ants. Here, the signifiers of the peoples of the northern hemisphere look like fancy dress. Mademoiselle's breathed French phrases, the plates in a book of Renaissance painting, the watches that stop at noon because they are as useful here as boat rudders, and the dresses, the flowing white umbilical remnants of the old order, the ridiculously inappropriate corsetry and skin stewing layers that look like home but on the obviously 30 plus degree day in the film must have felt like hell.

Those dresses are not just the banners of social elevation they are its prison cells as well. When Miranda and her friends splinter off from the main party it isn't long before the constraints come off. Not erotically, though, we've had a dose of that from the opening sequence when they were put on. This clothing removal is practical. Involving as it does a means to meet Big Nature on her own terms, it is also afforded a ritual and perhaps even mystical significance. Canny artists from this country have known how to make the Australian bush fascinating by keeping it spooky, surrounding and quietly threatening. When the girls climb the rock and get closer to the point at which they vanish their Englishness, affected or geniune, falls from them. The words fall away and the music takes over. Miranda, face completely covered by her golden mane, walking into a crevice and seeming to be consumed by the rock to the sound of a wordless choir sends the same kind of shivers it sent when I saw it in the 70s. She has gone forever. The terrified crying of her name by the outcast Edith cannot bring her back.

From this point we get where mystery stories usually start: the disappearance has happened and the detectives piece the events together. But we already know what happened, kind of. But there is no end to the mystery. The townsfolk are spooked and sculpt tiny monsters out of gossip. The police are baffled. Back at the school a sense of doom drives its namesake Miss Appleyard to the cognac and a thousand mile stare. A large scale search retrieves Irma but she can reveal nothing more than her thanks at being alive (the scene of her return is a beautifully staged horror from everyone's childhood). The new century is about to start and the new nation is wanted on stage. Get over it. Be haunted.

To celebrate Picnic at Hanging Rock for its atmosphere is stating a given. You can watch it for the spookiness alone which extends well beyond the initial disappearance. But spare a moment of sensory input to see the secret admirer's card floating on the screen. Mysterious, scary AND seductive nature, be my valentine. Never has a more deeply felt love letter been delivered to this country than in this film.

SHADOWS Autumn program begins March 4. Program here.


  1. Such a great film! And a great article!

  2. Thankee. And it is a great film.

  3. 'the cognac and a thousand mile stare' sums up the colonial condition.
    its namesake, and hers...
    Great review.

  4. Yo, Boynton. Thanks. The Blu-ray of this is spectacular and might serve an Autumn grogflog. Shall I put the word out?