Page 1


“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” Edgar Allen Poe 1849 I love motion pictures for their storytelling, spectacle, entertainment, and escapism. But for as long as I can remember, the primary, fundamental appeal of movies has always been their ability to capture the ethereal, ofttimes rapturous quality of dreams and fantasies. When I think of the moments when dreams and reality collided in movies for me, I think of the God’s-eye-view kaleidoscopic dance patterns of Busby Berkeley; the feverish surrealism of Ken Russell; the sound of Jane Fonda’s voice; the gravity-defying dancing of Astaire & Rogers; the consummate dignity in Woody Strode’s eyes in Spartacus; Polanski’s poetic evocation of dream logic in so many of his films; the way cinematographer Nicolas Roeg makes Julie Christie look in Petulia; the nightmarish, slow-motion demise of Beatty & Dunaway at the end of Bonnie & Clyde.

All of these moments—and moments like them—epitomize film’s miraculous capacity to both meet and exceed one’s fantasies while simultaneously inspiring new ones. Not every movie has to do this, but the fact that films possess the potential to render corporeal those very aspects of existence we ascribe to the ethereal is what made me fall in love with them.


For this very reason sports films, westerns, war movies, and action/adventures have never held a particularly strong interest for me. All that aggressive competition and combat—even when represented as heroic—just bring to mind the "nature vs. materialism" sentiments of Wordsworth’s The World is Too Much With Us. These films feel like products of the material (masculine) world, intent on exalting that which is singularly mortal, and therefore fundamentally minimal. Movies that awaken me to what is beautiful and mysterious in the world—that inspire me to pay more attention, feel more deeply, recognize and appreciate the poetry in the unique and absurd...I like that. When I'm lucky enough to recall them, my dreams always feel like hyperaware versions of reality. They seem to me to be, in their way, a truer vision of the magic and mystery in the world (and within myself) than my rational mind sometimes allows during what can be jokingly referred to as my "conscious" life. One of the more hypnotically exhilarating films to capture this sense of “movies as dreams/dreams as movies” (one I rate right up there with Robert Altman’s 3 Women) is Australian director Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Rachel Roberts as Mrs. Appleyard


Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda St. Clare

Margaret Nelson as Sara Waybourne

Helen Morse as Mlle. Dianne de Poitiers


Dominic Guard as Michael Fitzhubert

John Jarratt as Albert Crundall

The enigmatic tale of Picnic at Hanging Rock, condensed on the teasing “based on a true story or not?” poster copy used to promote the film, concerns a fateful Valentine’s Day in 1900 when, during a school outing to Hanging Rock, a mystically foreboding rock formation in Victoria, Australia, two schoolgirls and a teacher disappear, never to be seen again. From this deceptively simple mystery plot is suspended a host of enticing themes—practical as well as metaphysical—from which can be drawn entirely different (yet peculiarly complementary) interpretations of not only the event itself, but the lingering, escalatingly tragic effect it has on all the individuals whose lives were irrevocably changed by it.


Vivean Gray as Miss Greta McCraw

Sensitively adapted for the screen by Cliff Green from the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, it was established long ago that Picnic at Hanging Rock was not based on an actual event. But the intentional obfuscation of this fact by Lindsay throughout her life ideally suits a story in which the attempt to arrive at logical explanations through pragmatic means proves, in this instance, a futile pursuit at best.

Flanked by French teacher Mille. de Portiers on the left and math instructor Miss McCraw on the right, the girls are formally briefed before they depart on their picnic by headmistress Mrs. Appleyard. A briefing which can be summed up as: enjoy yourselves but make sure you don't have a good time.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY Establishing a mood of hazy paradox from the outset, Peter Weir’s ushers us into his film— which is, in effect, a waking dream—with the image of its most ethereal character, Miranda, waking up from a dream. It is Valentine’s Day at Appleyard College; a rigidly formal, upper5/13

class English all-girls boarding school plopped smack in the middle of the Australian bush, and the girls are all caught up in a flurry of romantic preoccupation.

"Meet me love, when day is ending..." The romantic valentines the girls share with one another express a depth of emotion largely stifled by their surroundings

And just as the surrounding barren landscape contrasts with the school’s lush gardens, and Hanging Rock’s organic asymmetry silently defies the illusion of order presented by stark traditionalism of the school’s architecture; the sensual stirrings within Mrs. Appleyard’s adolescent charges bristle against the stern repressiveness of Victorian era British Colonialism. These contrasts soon establish themselves as a motif in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the subtle discord between nature (encompassing both the supernatural and preternatural) and the desire to control it (as exemplified by the staunch dominance of school headmistress Mrs. Appleyard), are put to the test by the unexplained disappearance of the aforementioned students and teacher.

Little Girls Lost The disappearance of Miranda (Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Irma (Karen Robson) is depicted as an act of mystical somnambulism

Because the film begins with a title card already informing us of the girls’ disappearance, the 6/13

early scenes, for all their soft-focus sensuality (makes me wonder if Brian DePalma caught this film before he shot Carrie’s memorable slow-motion girls’ locker room scene) betray a sense of menace and foreboding. Natural emotions and actions are thwarted at every turn. Miranda, the school free spirit, is the object of a girlhood crush by her lonely roommate, Sara. Sara’s overtures of love are accepted, yet frustrated by Miranda’s cryptic premonition:“You must learn to love someone else apart from me, Sara. I won’t be here much longer.” In addition, after witnessing the girls binding themselves up with corsets (apparently a picnic doesn’t necessitate being comfortable), we’re given scene after scene in which teachers attempt to quiet and suppress the natural ebullience of girls anticipating an outing. All this has the effect of creating an atmosphere redolent of an emotional pressure-cooker (a feeling enhanced by the strenuously non-romantic math instructor as she pragmatically demystifies the miracle of Hanging Rock by going on about its formation being the result of earthly eruptions).

(After posting the above screencap, my partner told me its painterly composition and use of light reminded him of George Seurat's pointillist masterpiece ASunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - completed in 1886.) Beautiful.


By the time the three more developmentally inquisitive girls traipse off to explore (the naïf Edith [Christine Schuler] tagging along), their eventual disappearance into the almost beckoning columns of the rock feels like a date with destiny.

Two local boys also on the rock that day—Michael, a high-born Englishman, and Albert, an Australian coachman—find their lives touched (profoundly) by the disappearances.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS If the first part of the film feels like a deceptively pastoral rumination on Victorian ethos imposed upon Australian culture (vis a vis British Colonialism); then the second part, structured as a crime mystery shrouded in a psychological melodrama, feels like a battle royale between nature’s enigmatic indomitability and man’s arrogant faith in all things being comprehensible and tractable. Among the townsfolk, the urgency to discover the fate of the missing girls (compounded when one is found unharmed, yet lacking any recollection of what occurred) arises as much out of the fear of uncertainty as concern for their welfare. At the school, Mrs. Appleyard frets over how the heedlessness of the event will color public perception of her institution, her inefficacy in the matter fueling a need to exert her will over the staff and pupils. Particularly the rebellious but emotionally vulnerable Sara. Sara is an orphan, abandoned by parents, her friend Miranda, her caretaker, and ultimately her absent, longed-for brother (the latter, another lovely metaphysical quirk in a story overflowing with them).


Mrs. Appleyard, intent on breaking the stubborn will of the school's most defenseless and vulnerable student

The sum affect of all these emotional and psychological upheavals is that the disappearance of the schoolgirls comes to erode everything everyone has come to know and rely upon. This discord and disruption is dramatized in the contrasting images of Australia’s resilient-looking fauna juxtaposed against the fragile white swans introduced to Australia by British settlers (only black swans are indigenous). Similarly, the vaguely threatening sounds of nature on the film’s soundtrack feel like an angry outdoors response to the near-constant sound of ticking of clocks indoors. Picnic at Hanging Rock ends on a note of compound human tragedies. But true to the film's thematic responsiveness to the instinctual, sensual, and constant; nature seems to triumph and prevail. Hanging Rock remains as it has for millions of years: unchanged, unyielding, and the conclusive guardian of its mysteries.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM I find it somewhat remarkable to consider that outside of the mystical Australia vs. Colonialism angle I described above (the particular thrust of the film that spoke to me most fervently), Picnic at Hanging Rock actually operates on about fifty other levels simultaneously. Whether the themes relate to spiritualism, sexual awakening, death and loss, existential mystery, the birth of the Edwardian era in Australia, romantic idealism, etc. There are just so many fascinating and diverse ways to look at this movie.

Hanging Rock - Appleyard College / A precipice vs. an edifice One exalts the natural spirit, the other seeks to suppress it

Visually it is as sumptuous as they come. The almost otherworldly cinematography by Russell Boyd (Starstruck) renders Australia a continent of the mind. The seductively lush, yet mystifyingly ominous exteriors are pointedly offset by the meticulous (and spectacularly fine) art direction (David Copping, Martin Sharp, and I'm sure many others) which fills Appleyard College and the home of Col. Fitzhubert with determined Victorian overkill. It's clear the Colonialists intend to cobat the ruggedness of Australia by bringing every stitch of orderly Great Britain with them.


It's impossible to speak of Picnic at Hanging Rock without giving credit to the invaluable contribution made by its haunting musical score. Composer Bruce Smeaton and pan flutist Gheorghe Zamfir (with some additional assist by Beethoven) imbue each dreamily-evoked scene with just the right tone of languorous unease. PERFORMANCES Welsh actress Rachel Roberts (stepping in for the last-minute departure of originally cast Vivien Merchant (The Maids) is the immovable object against which all the characters in Picnic at Hanging Rock must collide. Backing up her startling hairdo, severe manner, and clipped, precise diction with a forcefulness that knocks everyone else off the screen, Mrs. Appleyard is an even more memorable entity than the character of Miranda. Peter Weir gets splendid performances out of the entirety of his cast. I have nothing but praise for the ensemble work in Picnic at Hanging Rock, with special kudos going to personal favorites Helen Morse (who I honestly thought was French), Anne-Louise Lambert, Margaret Nelson, and John Jarratt.

Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Jacki Weaver as Appleyard College's handyman and maid, are so very good as two grounded characters who, while lacking the dreaminess of the schoolgirls, instead possess a true gentleness of heart

I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time in 1979. Then, unfamiliar with the plot or Peter Weir's trance-like, atmospheric style, it felt like the most elegant horror movie I'd ever seen. 11/13

Very unsettling and disturbing in a compellingly subtle way. Since then, I've seen this movie more times than I can count. Each time finding more to marvel at and discover. However, the best thing about it is that it has ceased feeling like a dream remembered. Closer to the truth is that it feels like a remembered nightmare that no longer frightens, one whose unsettling memory now simply entertains.

A terrific scene of Polanski-level tension is when Irma, the only girl to be rescued of the missing three, visits the gymnasium before departing for home


Watch the two-hour "making of" documentary - Picnic at Hanging Rock: A Dream Within A Dream No evening of TV watching in the early '80s was complete without at least one sighting of this record collection commercial for Zamfir: Master of the Pan Flute. Warning, if you're a fan of the delicate and stirring way Gheorghe Zamfir's music is used in Picnic at Hanging Rock, I strongly suggest you skip the commercial. Otherwise it's available on YouTube HERE


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

Copyright © Ken Anderson


Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Picnic at Hanging Rock - 1975  

On Valentine's Day in 1900 Victoria, Australia, two schoolgirls and a teacher mysteriously disappear while on a school picnic at Hanging Roc...

Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Picnic at Hanging Rock - 1975  

On Valentine's Day in 1900 Victoria, Australia, two schoolgirls and a teacher mysteriously disappear while on a school picnic at Hanging Roc...