After auspicious beginnings at the turn of the twentieth century, the Australian film industry had all but disappeared by the 1920s. But half a century later, a renaissance occurred with the Australian New Wave of cinema. Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock marked the arrival of possibly Australia’s most successful film maker, and the prestige picture of the Aussie new wave.
It’s the dawn of the 20th century, and the students of Appleyard College, a prestigious all girls school, are taking an excursion to the titular rock. Miles from any civilization, the girls and their teachers picnic in the bush land around the rock before taking a nap in the blistering Australian sun. When they wake, three girls and one teacher have disappeared. Soon, the entire town is consumed by the search for these missing women.
While it tells the story of the disappearance of several school girls and their teacher, and how those left behind react, it’s more a story about the struggle of colonial Australians, stubbornly trying to bend the land to their way of life. Their new, but ancient home, is epitomised by the titular rock and the bush land surrounding it, while in constant contrast with the people and their old world ways. This is seen in the opening shot, starting on the unrelenting outback, the camera then pans to show the girl’s private school, an oasis of European elegance.
The way Weir frames the rock, almost always from a low angle, means it’s constantly intimidating the characters. When shot from above, it’s to highlight the labyrinth of caves, crevices and corridors that will eventually swallow two girls and their teacher forever.
In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the sun and heat encourage the afternoon nap and complacency of the teachers. The sun and heat are implied to play their own roll in the hypnotising of the girls by the rock. And the sun and heat propel the ever increasing distress of the search party who, recognising their own exhaustion, come to believe there’s no way the girls could ever survive past the first day or two.
Weir goes to great lengths to show how out of place the old, European ways are in this new land. Before the girls leave for their picnic, they are shown in the safety of Appleyards School. Graciously appointed, it is a spec of elegance in this mass of outback. When the girls arrive at the rock, their foreign intrusion is announced by a flock of rosellas taking flight and the beginning of an almost constant buzz of insect sounds that will fill the rest of the movie whenever in the elements. Later, the coach driver and head mistress both notice their watches have stopped while at the rock, almost as if these modern gadgets are no match for nature.
More than just naturally dangerous, Picnic At Hanging Rock gives the rock, and by extension, the outback surrounding it, almost super natural powers as well. There’s a clear distinction between those who represent the struggle to fit the square peg of European culture into the round hole of Australia, and those who are adapting, or have adapted to, what is more recognisable as an Australian today. All the while reiterating just how Australian the story is with the unrelenting encroachment of the outback and bush with every shot.
Weir’s efforts to make the Australianess almost a sensory overload, combined with a national identity so heavily based on colonialisation give the outback that much more power and Picnic at Hanging Rock it’s real power as a compelling, haunting mystery.