Picnic at Hanging Rock could be given credit as being the first work of Australian cinema. It showed for the first time the process of leaving the English Empire, and the mysterious enigma of the Australian past, the Aboriginal dreamtime and the vast wilderness of the outback.
What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream
Thus the film begins, taking its inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe. We are given the first impression that things are not as they appear as the ghostly pan pipe theme music kicks in.
As the titles remind us, on the 14th of February 1900, a party of schoolgirls visited the rocks in Victoria. Three were never seen again. In actual fact the film is a work of fiction, adapted from Joan Lindsay. This is the first sign of the film’s conflation of truth and fiction. Yet, the film inhabits a very real location, one that is instantly familiar, of a girl’s boarding school built by English settlers in Australia in the nineteenth century.
Their visit to the hanging rock is a treat, a reward for good behavior. That the visit takes place on Valentines Day makes it that bit more notable. The opening sequence introduces us to the girls, focusing on the students who will disappear on the rock later on – so that we can get as close to them as possible. Decorous scenes of the girls going about their daily routine are depicted glowingly by the film’s ravishing cinematography. Miranda (Anne Lambert) washes her face inflower-infused water and looks at her reflection in the mirror, as Irma reads her a rapturous love poem.
Chubby Edith sits by herself counting cards which she presumably sends to the other girls. More poetry is read in dulcet voices, and the girls are seen lacing themselves into tight corsets, to show how they are literally bound by Victorian morality.
Accompanying the girls on their trip are teachers from the school, a young French teacher and the much older Miss McCraw. Once the girls arrive at the rock the film really takes a headfirst jump into the unknown. The rocks appear to have faces carved into them. The four girls form a breakaway group to investigate the rock closer, leaving the rest of the party on ground level. ‘Look at them down there,’ observes Irma, ‘they look like ants.’ At the top, the girls remove their shoes and stockings, and they begin a strange, hypnotic dance.
Only Irma stays behind, evidently she hasn’t the courage to go inside. And that is the last we see of them, as the remainder of the film is taken up by an attempt to find them and find out what happened in the rock. Three days later one girl is found at the entrance. She is bruised and her clothing is ripped, however a medical examination reveals that she is quite ‘intact’.
That is the only mention made of sexual behaviour, yet the film is very much a coming of age story. In many ways the girls that enter the rock are leaving childhood behind, facing the rich and strange sexuality of female adulthood.
That the girls all wear white (and how impractical that must be in the outback) is no accident either, since it stands for purity and virginity. By the end of the film, we see a beautifully slow sequence of the girls picnincking, reading Shakespeare, looking at pictures by Botticelli, all done with no sync sound but using the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto as an accompaniment. We watch, mesmerized, as Australia’s colonial society melts in the midday sun.