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Picnic at Hanging Rock
1975 - PG - 115 Mins.
Director: Peter Weir
Producer: Hal McElroy and Jim McElroy
Written By: Cliff Green
Starring: Anne Lambert, Rachel Roberts, Margaret Nelson, Helen Morse, Vivean Gray
Review by: Jennie Kermode

the lost girls
On Valentine's day in 1899, a party of girls from a respected Australian boarding school enjoy a picnic amongst the trees at the base of the ancient, lowering Hanging Rock. Affected by the heat and by the wildness of their surroundings, they begin to lose their ordinary restraint. Four of them go climbing high up on the rock itself, and disappear. Despite intensive searches, two are never found.

'Picnic at Hanging Rock' is one of those tales which everyone tends to assume is based on a true story. Joan Lindsay, who wrote the original novel, hinted that this may have been the case, but there is no evidence to support her suggestion, though, to this day, people still go looking for evidence of the lost girls. Her book became a cult phenomenon largely because of its resistance to the familiar demands of narrative. It offers no easy solutions. Many have decried it for lacking a proper ending, but the questions it strives to ask are centered precisely on how people cope with stories that have no neat solutions - on how people cope with real life. Peter Weir's brilliant debut film is an extension of this idea, and he captures the mood perfectly. With sumptuous photography and a powerful, evocative score by Bruce Smeaton, he lets us into the secret places that form where reality and fiction meet. Miranda, one of the story's principal heroines and the idol of the other, understands these places. "Miranda knows a lot of secrets," we are told. But she can't share them in any direct way. It is hinted that she may have escaped into the future, or into some peripheral time where people are ready for her different perspective. This draws heavily on traditional Australian aboriginal notions of the circularity of time. Weir's direction often focuses on the passing of time, the camera flitting across the faces of watches and clocks, showing us shadows creeping, identifying the birds and insects which emerge at different times of day. Though tidied away from the school itself, which at first seems to be a safe environment, nature here is something raw and unconquerable, something whose motives can only be guessed at.

A powerful yet ethereal performance from Anne Lambert as Miranda is matched by Margaret Nelson's as the heartbroken Sara, whose life begins to crumble in her absence, and by Rachel Roberts' as the strict but well-intentioned headmistress gradually driven to desperation. As everything begins to unravel, a certain sensuality and madness invades the lives of those remaining. Weir uses lush lighting techniques to illustrate their changing perspective. This film does not centre on the horror of what might have happened to the girls, but on a different sort of horror - that which stems from the unknown. As young men risk their lives in the treacherous darkness and unforgiving sunlight, their search for the girls becomes an obsession which extends to endanger the safety and sanity of numerous others. Weir astutely examines the isolation created by the landscape, and the vulnerability of small communities in which interdependence is essential but everyone has a secret to keep.

Despite its power and astonishing beauty, this is not a film that will be to everyone's taste. Some people find it too slow, or simply too frustrating. It's a film with which one has to be prepared to be intimate. If you're willing to make that effort, to take that chance, then you can look forward to immersing yourself in a true classic of Australian cinema.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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