Peter Weir’sPicnic At Hanging Rock” is a story of an all-girl school’s expedition to a local mountainous landmark, the Hanging Rock of the title. 3 of the girls vanish without a trace, never to be seen again, and the film deals with how the school and local community deal with the aftermath of the incident.

While at first glance this is a fairly sedate, albeit haunting drama, closer viewing reveals a layered and infinitely deep film, and one which is to be avoided if you insist that plotlines are all tied up nicely in a bow by the time the credits roll. The film delights in asking questions, and abhors answering them, leaving it open to much debate and interpretation. Many themes and solutions are hinted at here, but none are conclusive and definitive.

It is common opinion that the majority of the film is a metaphor for the path to womanhood and loss of innocence – similar in tone and message to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Innocence” [2004] but a lot more subtle and ambiguous. Whereas Innocence focuses purely on the young girl’s experience of the journey, this film also tries to observe the change through an adult, or parental viewpoint as well as the child’s.

The initial 30 minutes leading up to the disappearance of the girls, is where strong visual and narrative metaphors are established which suggest the main subtext of the film is one of sexual awakening, and the loss of innocence through puberty. For instance, on their fateful climb up Hanging Rock they spot their school-friends who stayed behind at the base, not recognising or relating to them – their ascent seemingly a symbolic climb to womanhood, leaving their now foreign childhood and innocence behind. Also, before they make their final walk through the rocks never to be seen again, one of the girls removes her childish, stifling items of clothing revealing the flesh of a young woman. Another of the girls that makes the climb is short, round and less womanly, obviously lacking in the emotional maturity of the other girls, and as such it is understandable that she is left behind when the 3 girls make their ultimate walk through the rocks – she is not yet ready for adulthood, and instead runs frightened and screaming back to her safe, comforting childhood at the base of the rock.

Later, one of the missing girls returns with unexplained bruises and wounds on her head and hands, and we are told after inspection by a doctor that “she is still intact”, referring to her status as a virgin. For this girl it seems the path to womanhood was not smooth, and instead full of pain – and life throws her back to where she has started. Instead of the virginal white worn by the other girls, she now wears a crimson dress instead, and the schoolgirls attack her for not giving them the answers to the other girl’s disappearance. At this point she is symbolically neither a woman nor a child, trapped in the confusing mess of puberty.

It is here that the focus moves away from the girls, and on to the adults, their perception of events, their sense of loss and their coping mechanisms. The head of the school – Mrs Appleyard – is essentially the matriarchal role, and her coping mechanisms can be likened to a parent’s sense of loss and abandonment when they realise their offspring are no longer children but young adults. She wistfully remembers her youth, and laments how the towns she used to visit “never changed… never changed”, and also steps up the discipline with the remaining girls. In the final scene she dresses in black and wears a veil as she finally realises she has lost the girls, and pushes another away (with fatal consequences) in the mourning process.

This is of course, just one interpretation. Many other viewers see the film as nothing more than a supernatural horror yarn. Another popular opinion is that the film is a masochistic reflection of the colonial British guilt of inhabiting the beautiful land of Australia. Other schools of thought suggest the film is an analogy for the fear felt by the colonials in a foreign, misunderstood land of unfamiliar ambience and nature. Perhaps the film is a tapestry woven of all these hypotheses. However you approach it, it’s clear that the film is intentionally evasive – in an unusual move Peter Weir famously removed scenes from his Director’s cut, scenes which could be considered “clues” to a possible solution. It appears he doesn’t want the film to be understood, that the point of the film is to be alien, unsettling, ambiguous, and free of a comforting conclusion.

Visually, the film is at times intentionally dull and reserved, and at others breathtaking and hauntingly beautiful – with Victorian colonial costume clashing with the rugged beauty of the Australian outback.  The soundtrack is complimentary, unique and memorable and casts a timeless, sometimes supernatural slant on proceedings. The entire cast performs naturally and with subtlety, and my only nitpick is a rather obvious overdub of a minor character’s voice (the immature girl who flees from the moutain as the other girls vanish).

My summary may seem paradoxical. While Picnic’s main strength is how it prompts analysis and discussion of its themes, this is also its weakness. The deeper levels of the film provide so much room for interpretation that on the surface the main story arc may seem a little drawn out after the first half hour. If you ignore any assumed subtext and are unwilling to look deeper, the film as a stand-alone story may seem a little lethargic. Some may say this is not the film’s fault but the viewers – but I believe a true masterpiece should be able to engage the viewer on every level, and it is easy to see that the sedate pace and lack of conclusive answers may not appeal to a casual viewer. If you are willing to apply some thought and concentration however, you will be rewarded with a thoughtful, deep film which is a catalyst for debate and interpretation, as well as being a beautifully shot, mysterious film in its own right.

4 / 5