Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Set in 1900 around Valentine’s Day, girls from the Appleyard ladies college are to venture to the title Victorian landmark for a picnic. Unfortunately, only one girl returns from the trip along with staff member Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse), whilst three other girls and a teacher (celebrated “Neighbours” old biddy Vivean Grey) vanish without a trace. An investigation led by copper Wyn Roberts ensues, whilst the headmistress (Rachel Roberts) is left to deal with unhappy parents and declining finances. John Jarratt plays one of two young men who were among the last to see the missing girls.

Given how non-eventful this film is, I almost don’t feel like starting with this, but I try to be as cautious as possible. So for those of you who haven’t seen this film, I’m going to be discussing how empty this film is in quite explicit detail. More explicit detail than the film itself actually contains. SPOILER-RIFIC REVIEW AHEAD, YE HAVE BEEN WARNED. Directed by Peter Weir and scripted by Cliff Green (who wrote the similarly pointless and pretentious “Summerfield”), this 1975 adaptation of the Joan Lindsay novel is considered by many critics to be one of the best Australian films ever made. I personally think it’s one of the worst, and indicative of just about everything I loathe in cinema; An arty-farty filmmaker, an Aussie period story, frilly dresses, a ‘Ladies College’, pan flute, no characters worth a damn, and absolutely no attempt at even hypothesising on its central mystery. This tedious soap commercial of nothingness is my personal nightmare put to film. I loathe it. It’s been unquestionably gorgeously shot by Russell Boyd (“The Man From Hong Kong”, “The Last Wave”, “Gallipoli”), thanks in part to the natural beauty of Australia, but otherwise the best I can say for this wankfest is…if you want to see Mrs. Mangel (Vivean Grey) eat a banana, here’s your movie. Otherwise it’s pointless from beginning to end, but especially the end. That’s a shame, because although it’s not meant to be based on any individual real-life incident, the idea behind the film isn’t one lacking the potential for intrigue. It’s just that it’s been botched up big time, ironic given that Weir also directed “Gallipoli”, in my view the best Australian film ever made. So he’s no hack.  

From moment one Weir (whose other films include the atmospheric “The Last Wave”, the high seas flick “Master and Commander”, and the appalling “The Cars That Ate Paris”) and Green grossly overdo the dainty, prissy, giggly, soft-voiced girls in frilly dresses bullshit to the point where it’s eye-rolling. That’s before the plot even bloody kicks in. It’s like a 100 minute parody, yet it’s 100 minutes of deadly serious, arty distraction in attempting to hide its completely empty mystery plot. Meanwhile, 20 minutes in and I was also mightily sick of the fucking pan flute. Seriously, it’s bad enough I grew up with the exact same piece of ghastly music on coffee ads for years, here a little of Gheorghe Zamfir’s tooting goes…well, not very far actually. The rest of the score by Bruce Smeaton is actually really bizarre and ill-fitting with not only the pan flute elements, but the overall film itself.

Aside from the scenery and a young John Jarratt, this is also the most English film ever made about Australia by an Australian filmmaker. It’s very, very dainty. As I said, nothing happens in the film. It’s amazing that for a film that actually gets to Hanging Rock so quickly, it never ends up anywhere. I mean, I guess they do have a picnic and there’s a place called Hanging Rock. But that’s about it, and every cut away back to constipated Rachel Roberts (ridiculously stone-faced, it’s a shame the talented Ms. Grey wasn’t cast, as she’d do much better with it) and the others staying behind is not only in and of itself useless, but it also serves to alert you to the fact that Weir and the screenwriter are just giving us filler. Nothing happens, and the investigation portion of the film may be even less interesting than what comes before it. It’s certainly more disappointing given the lack of a conclusion to the central mystery. Either everything before the ending needed to be actually interesting to compensate for the lack of eventual clarity (and indeed that’s what Weir was apparently going for, he didn’t want us to care much about the mystery itself), or the central mystery needed an actual conclusion. Instead what we’re given is some truly unbelievable behaviour by the dainty little fairy girls who in one idiotic scene harass the one girl who gets found, yelling at her to tell them where the other girls are. It’s total nonsense to believe these snowflakes would even have the energy to get all riled up like that in the first place. They might chip a nail or faint from too much excitement. I get it, it’s probably about sexual repression and hysteria, but it plays so stupidly with these dainty little blossoms all of a sudden becoming raging bitches out of nowhere. Then there’s the absurd final quarter of melodramatic psychodrama involving Rachel Roberts’ repressed headmistress losing her marbles or something out of sexual frustration or whatever. Oof.

Also worth a mention is the fact that for something so chaste and PG, Weir seems to weirdly fetishise the girls and their frilly outfits as much as he can for characters dressed up to their necks. It’s chaste and creepy at the same damn time. I must also make mention of the absolutely nasty, entirely cruel and unnecessary depiction of the one chubby girl travelling to Hanging Rock. There’s no need for such a thing, and it’s disgraceful. That said, she’s the only girl in the entire film who isn’t entirely interchangeable, which definitely doesn’t help in drawing you in. One of them is blonde and called Miranda, one is chubby, the rest…I dunno. Oh, there is Helen Morse poorly attempting some kind of accent (French? Eye-talian?) as one of the staff of the school. Only Jacki Weaver (as a randy maid) and a young Garry McDonald (as a constable) emerge unscathed as far as I’m concerned, because they’re barely in it.

This isn’t a film. It’s a water colour painting you stare at for 100 minutes and still don’t get anything out of. It’s a pretty film and some might find its mood ‘haunting’ or whatever, but to me it isn’t remotely satisfying on any other level than the visual, least of all story. But hey, it’s apparently high art…or something. No, it’s 100 minutes of bubble-headed ninnies in frilly dresses poncing about aimlessly to barely any conclusion at all. It’s a terrible waste of time. I’m going to piss people off with this, aren’t I?...

Rating: D-


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