For a long time, I mistakenly believed that Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on a real event. While I knew that it was adapted from a novel, I assumed Joan Lindsay’s book was a speculative attempt to explain what happened at Australia’s Hanging Rock in 1900 when three young girls and a middle-aged matron went missing during a visit. Apparently my confusion is fairly common, and Lindsay had deliberately left the mystery open-ended to add to the impression that it was based on a real occurrence. In fact, both book and film are entirely fictional—which is central to the movie’s impact.
As long as you think the story is based on actual events, however tenuously, the film’s languid, arty texture can be accepted as the stylization necessary to impart an air of the unfathomable depths of everyday life. Once you recognize the story as a fabrication, however, the film’s mannered execution feels heavy handed, self-conscious and borders on the ludicrous. You realize events have been pumped up beyond reasonable significance, to a point of occasionally going over the top.
Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd do the usual with this kind of story: shots of landscapes taken at times of day to accentuate their beauty; extreme close-ups on exotic animals and unusual plants; long shots of the girls in their white dresses posed against contrasting backgrounds; slow-motion to add an extra layer of languor. The musical accompaniment heightens things by throwing together classical and contemporary styles, and most famously, Gheorghe Zamfir’s panflute. There’s nothing particularly original about any of it, but there’s no denying that the mish-mash is done at a high level and that it produces the requisite sense of sunny rot in an indifferent universe.
It is that very effectiveness which makes Picnic feel contrived. This is a tempest in a teapot where the kettle has been left deliberately to boil over. The implication that only some inexplicable, cosmic event can explain what happened at Hanging Rock is just so much hot air produced by the way the story is told. Lindsay, Weir and screenwriter Cliff Green hold back an explanation just as the average whodunnit would, but without revealing the solution. When you recognize the obfuscation as deliberate, the “mystery” evaporates into a fog of pseudo-poetic pretense. Any event can be made to seem redolent if you don’t explain things and dip it all in a thick glaze of style. Viewers are led to think that something must be going on to justify the cloying mystification. In short, the problem with Hanging Rock is not that there is no solution. There is no mystery.
To be sure, the arty atmosphere can be enjoyed for itself. Indeed, Picnic at Hanging Rock is as lush, sweet, high in calories and low in nutrition as the Valentine’s Day cake seen early in the film, a nice over-ripe indulgence for a sunny afternoon. What it ultimately is not is convincing.