Leave it to Peter Weir to show Australian cinema how it should be done, without leaping over the line into insufferable. Picnic at Hanging Rock has at times been described as a mystery, and at other times as a “horror film without the horror”. What it is, certainly, is an excellent piece of cinema, albeit one that, while the beginning aspects of the mystery are set up and handled very nicely, it doesn’t seem to pan out very much through the remainder of the film. Now, to the film’s defense, it’s not really supposed to, but that doesn’t mean that the film couldn’t have been potentially even better.
A group of students from a private girls school take an excursion with some of their teachers and chaperons to the mystical and perhaps magical natural wonder known as Hanging Rock. There, however, a group of four of them decides to explore the region further, and as a result, three, along with one of the teachers, mysteriously disappear. The rest of the film is both a whatdunnit about what exactly did happen to the missing girls, as well as an exploration of how the disappearance affects the rest of the students and faculty, as well as some of the townsfolk who get wrapped up in it. The film, as a whole, is largely distinguished by its cinematography. The majority of the first part of the film is the titular picnic, and it is almost literally heavenly to behold. Every scene in the wilds of nature seems to have an ethereal glow, as if the girls were traipsing about in the Garden of Eden. Add the film’s eerie and off-putting musical score, and you’ve got a recipe for a right good mystery. But, as I pointed out in the opener, the film then decides to deviate from the central plot point, and opts instead to explore the inter-personal and inter-student-faculty relationships of the tenants at the girls boarding school, along with a couple of townspeople who were also there at Hanging Rock during the disappearance, and who end up having an unhealthy obsession with what happened. It’s this deviation that makes the second half of the film feel like less than the first, more of a regular inter-personal film than something above and beyond the rest of the field.
What makes Picnic at Hanging Rock work so well is the deliberate ambiguity; the central mystery is never resolved, and we never do find out what happened to the missing girls. That might rub some people the wrong way, and in all fairness, if you’re the type who absolutely needs resolution to be satisfied, this is likely one you should stay away from. For anyone open to it, though, this is a nicely done picture with a fairly engaging storyline, coupled with hints and clues as to what may have happened that are dropped throughout the run of the film, that make the unsolved nature of the mystery that much more enticing.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10
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