It was only a matter of time before the work of Peter Weir would appear once again on this blog. The only surprising factor for me was that I would be posting one of his earliest features as a director on here with the inevitable assumption that such a fetal point in his career was without merit. However once watched, Weir’s second directorial feature is nothing short of an absolute haunting masterpiece, one that will leave you with many questions thanks to the mystery of its plot! Picnic at Hanging Rock is an iconic film for several reasons since its release in 1975. It managed to showcase the cinema from a part of the world that had previously been unknown in terms of film. It revealed the talents of a new generation of filmmakers inspired by the previous decade’s revolt of the conventional studio system who later founded what became known as the “Australian New Wave”. And it also educated its audience on one of the more intriguing real life mysteries to ever have been reported. Not bad for a filmmaker who was just starting out.
Hanging Rock is a film that immediately grips you straight from the get-go! We as an audience are introduced to the world of the film, Australia 1900, by an all girls finishing school where we witness the Victorian goings on of a group of would-be spoiled brats about to embark on a geological survey. This survey charters the now infamous hanging rock; a mountain known for its foreboding volcanic properties and bizarre shape. The journey itself is uneventful until four school girls decide to venture further off into the mountain range to explore. A death wish for characters in nearly any film I grant you. After several hours of searching only one girl returns from the mountain and the mystery for the rest of the cast as well as audience begins.
Peter Weir is a filmmaker known for exploiting the visual power that real-life landscapes contain. The mist-filled jungles featured in “Mosquito Coast” (1986), the serene blue ocean used in “The Truman Show” (1998), and the insidiously shot mountain range of Hanging Rock contains nothing short of an absolute nightmare. The chillingly barren surface of the Australian landscape is mercilessly captured on the screen; combined with the disturbing use of sound design (particularly in one scene where three of the four school girls begin to enter a trance whilst exploring the mountain) which makes for an uneasy but exceptionally captivating watch. The other trademarks of a Weir film can be seen in parts throughout, however due to Rock being such an early work in his filmography the distinctive polish and reputation that Weir would later establish is at times hard to see….but only at times. There is a certain “rawness” to the film, particularly in the structuring of scenes with the teachers of the finishing school who concerned for the girls safety but are also terrified about the school’s future after the event inevitably reaches the press.
It is always fascinating to watch the earlier efforts of any filmmaker and witness how their methods and presentational approach change over time, Weir being no exception. The camera style, mise-en-scene and use of chilling landscapes (as mentioned before) are all present but also just in early seed development. The genius motifs of his work however has stayed consistent throughout, filming subject matters that spark immediate public interest, particularly where “The Truman Show” is concerned. The idea of using the utterly fascinating real-life mystery of Hanging Rock as the plot for an engaging mystery thriller is one that we haven’t seen for a long time since. Perhaps due to the Australian-Victorian time period setting, the stellar cast of young Aussie actresses or maybe the bizarreness of the mystery itself, who knows? Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film you’re likely to never forget after watching, though there will be some certain scenes you wish you could. The mystery itself will hopefully keep you engaged and obsessed whilst viewing the film, but also afterwards as it certainly did for me.