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Review (sorta): Picnic at Hanging Rock

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Last night I was in the mood to watch a movie. The only one of my Netflix movies that I could find was Picnic at Hanging Rock, which has been on my list for years but not with any real intent to actually watch it. But I figured I was in a mood in which I might like it, and it was right there, so I watched it.

It surprised me by being more coherent, more engaging, and (to be honest) less boring than I had expected. I'd been expecting a moody, atmospheric, very slow-paced, possibly black-and-white art film, perhaps something like David Lynch on downers; instead, although there were plenty of long slow pans across scenery with eerie music and cicadas thrumming, and although I don't think it's legal to describe this movie without using the word "atmospheric," there were also compelling characters, and it didn't feel slow to me. Nor did it feel scary, despite the air of ominous looming menace that hovers over much of the film.

There's one thing about the ending that, although it's technically a spoiler, is something that I'm very glad I knew going into it, because it helped me set expectations appropriately. So if you've somehow missed hearing (in general terms) about what does and doesn't happen in this movie in the 30+ years since it was released, and you really don't want to know, then don't read the rest of this entry.

Specifically: I'm very glad that I knew ahead of time not to expect a resolution, because there isn't one. As Netflix's blurb puts it: "Peter Weir's haunting tragedy alludes to several explanations but offers no clear-cut answers."

I still wouldn't call it a great movie; I didn't love it. But I liked it more than I'd expected to.

So why was it on my list, if I didn't expect to like it? Cultural literacy, basically; I've heard people talking about it for many years, and figured it was worth seeing just to know what they were talking about.

Another thing that surprised me about it: turns out that neither the movie nor the novel it's based on are true stories. Apparently there are lots of people who think that there was a real-life incident that both the book and the movie drew from, but in fact there's no record of anything like this having happened.

Some interesting Picnic websites and pages:

  • Wikipedia article about the book.
  • The Secret of Hanging Rock was originally the final chapter of the book, but the author cut it from the book; it wasn't published until 20 years later. It reveals how the disappearances happened--which is to say, how the author originally intended that they happened. I suspect that neither the book nor the movie would've been nearly as popular if this chapter had been left in; based on the Wikipedia description, it sounds pretty anticlimactic.
  • Roger Ebert's review of the movie, which makes a fascinating comparison (midway through the review) to the movie of A Passage to India--it's been a long time since I saw that, but from my vague memory of the mood of parts of it, that seems like a good analogy. And I like Ebert's comment that Hanging Rock "opens as if it will make perfect sense."
  • Apparently the version available on DVD is the "director's cut," in which Weir removed several minutes that he didn't feel contributed to the movie or something. There's an unofficial website where you can view a detailed description of the missing scenes (with a bunch of screen captures and several sound recordings).
  • Also available online: an unofficial transcript of the whole film. Which reminds me that I liked the song about the horses that Miranda sings at the beginning. And also reminds me that I was mystified by a line of the maid's, near the end, talking to another servant about the girls at the school: "Some of them are orphans, or wards, or  . . You know." I'm not sure what she meant to imply there.

4 Comments

I think the maid's line at the end refers to girls who are illegitimate.


Aha! Yes, that makes much more sense than my theory. (I thought she was saying some of them were rich men's mistresses or something, which really didn't seem very likely.) Thanks!


Hm. I have this movie on my Tremendous List of Lesbian Movies. I *was* trying to work my way through the entire thing, but after about five bad movies in a row I had lost heart. Maybe I will get this one next. Go go Netflix!


Sady, the dykiest thing about the movie is the opening five minutes, and even that is limited pretty much to one line and some longing looks; hard to determine whether it's text or subtext. (It has plausible deniability; if the director and/or writer and/or actors said they didn't intend the scene to be read that way, I would probably believe them.) I suppose there's a little more semi-overt subtext later on, building on those first few minutes, but I would say it only just barely qualifies as a lesbian movie.


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