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Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.


Picnic at Hanging Rock: Director’s Cut
(1975/1998)

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS My sympathies lie squarely with those who feel Peter Weir shouldn’t have gone and meddled with his film (removing eight minutes). Some of these individuals are actors and production crew interviewed on the feature-length making of documentary included on the Blu ray/DVD. Michael Mann is the biggest culprit in this inability to leave well alone (and then there’s George Lucas… ). Weir at least claims he’d wanted to edit out sequences that didn’t work so well since its original release outside of Australia. I can understand his reasoning, in particular with the excised scenes between Irma and Michael and their loss didn’t diminish my appreciation of the film as a whole; possibly their loss even had the desired effect.

It’s one of those horror films, like The Wicker Man, that you’re slightly shy of defining within that genre; so few of its scenes or elements are designed to frighten in a classical sense. This is a horror film by dint of what you don’t see and don’t know, the atmosphere created by that absence and the effect it has on the characters involved. As with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, there is a sense of the supernatural infringing upon the everyday but this is a force evoked by the feelings of the principals rather than anything tangible. Also, unlike many horror films, the motivating event happens in the first third, in broad daylight, and the rest of the film plays out on the responses to this.

The audience and the characters share bewilderment at what has transpired, ever more so when one of the four missing characters (three schoolgirls and Mrs Mangel from Neighbours) is returned. It’s easy to see why the tale has retained the aura of “true story” long after it was established that it was not the case, because there is something very uncalculated about its ambiguity. Any number of explanations is possible, and characters voice many of these, but the power of the film is its pervasive resistance to a fully-formed, rational answer.

Mention of Roeg beckons a comparison between Hanging Rock and the earlier Walkabout. Both films dwell on the disturbing clash between the repressed (English colonial) feminine and untamable, pagan forces of nature as represented by the Aborigines and the Outback. There is an accompanying fractured approach to time and perspective. But Rock is more overtly mystical. It directly invites the horror film interpretation that something potent, powerful and primordial happened to these girls. The helicopter shot of Edith fleeing the three girls, who have just disappeared into the rocks, her screams augmented by Bruce Smeaton’s eerie use of melatron, is chilling. Later, the experience of Michael on the rock is revealed to have been nerve-shattering (and curiously ritualised by his marking a way to guide himself back from wherever he must go to find the girl).

But, perhaps the explanation is altogether mundane; Edith’s fevered imaginings as the girls leave her behind, the missing parties succumbing to accident or foul play (at points both Michael and Albert invite suspicion, even if it does not linger), the possibility of sexual indiscretion or transgression (it is revealed that Irma was not wearing her corset when she was discovered). But then, the peculiar disappearance of Mrs Mangel, sorry Miss McGraw, also in a state of discarded apparel flicks the register back to the mystical.

Certainly, the events following the disappearance on the Rock show characters haunted by the loss of the girls. Or, more particularly, the loss of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) who has been repeatedly remarked upon, or obsessed over, for her beauty and grace; Weir continues to remind us that she holds more of symbolic, archetypal role, Botticelli’s Venus (or an angel), than that of a fully-formed character. The toll is particularly exacting on Sara (Margaret Nelson) and the tyrannical headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts; superb, although reportedly little acting was required to put the fear of God into the cast and crew), while Michael is haunted by visions of her. It’s an aspect that, again, puts one in mind of Don’t Look Now; individuals struggling to cope with the fall-out of an event that sends one’s world reeling.

As I said, I can understand Weir’s rejection of the scenes between Michael and Irma; there’s something more powerful about the lack of head-on interrogation of either their experiences in the Director’s Cut. And it makes the scene where the other girls round on Irma, who has come to say goodbye, all the more chilling. I like also how the fate of Sara, tying into the revelation of her relationship with Albert, is highlighted, and the sense that this scene qualifies as support of the film’s more mystical themes.

I had not been aware of the original ending of Joan Lindsay’s novel, upon which the film is based. It was excised by the publisher and eventually saw light of day several year’s after Lindsay’s death. Reading the synopsis of “Chapter Eighteen” it came to mind that the sequence wouldn’t have been too out of place in a novel of Alan Garner’s devising. The ideas also further emphasise the theme mentioned earlier of the discord between British and Aboriginal systems and values. But, while the events of the chapter felt consistent with the possibilities raised by the film, that’s in no way to suggest that attempting to render them (even if the filmmakers had known about the ending) would have worked.  The power of Picnic at Hanging Rock lies in its being so close to an explanation one can grasp but paradoxically so far from one at the same time.

*****

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