Directed by Peter Weir. Australia. 1975.


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“What we are and what we seem to be is only a dream within a dream.” - Edgar Allen Poe

In many cultures there is a tradition that an energy pattern encircles the earth creating ley lines, power points, and energy-gravity vortexes. It is well known that Australian Aborigines travel these invisible energy lines from sacred spot to sacred spot. According to Loraine Mafi Williams, an Aboriginal shaman, "There are places all over Australia to avoid. These we call "Sacred Sites and they are sacred in the hope that white people will leave them alone…." One of these places to avoid may be Hanging Rock, an imposing natural rock formation about 75 kilometers north of Melbourne in South Australia. This is the setting for the beautiful 1975 film by Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock voted No 1 of the Top 10 Australian films of all time in a 1995 centenary of Australian cinema. Using Gheorghe Zamfir’s pan flute and Bruce Smeaton's original score as a background, the film resonates with a sense of the mystical and timeless.

Based on a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, three girls and a teacher at a rigid Victorian boarding school for teenage girls vanish without a trace during a school excursion to Hanging Rock National Park on St. Valentine's Day in 1900. The film does not concentrate on the investigation into the disappearance but on the psychological ramifications for the survivors. As the film opens, four girls, the ethereal Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) called a "Botticelli angel" by her teacher, Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis) and Edith (Christine Schuler) accompanied by teachers Miss McCraw (Vivean Grey) and Madmeoiselle De Poitiers (Helen Morse) leave the picnic grounds to explore Hanging Rock. Remaining behind is the school's uptight headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) and Sara (Maragret Nelson), a close friend of Miranda who is being punished for not completing an assignment. As the girls visit the hidden passages and odd formations, Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd create an otherworldly atmosphere and a strange sense of foreboding. As they walk, they shed parts of their clothing and, inexplicably move in single file toward the top of the rock as if being controlled by an external force. 

Two of the three girls are never found -- only Edith immediately comes back screaming hysterically uncertain as to what happened to her friends. In addition, Miss McCraw has also vanished, last seen by Edith running up the rock -- partially unclothed. No attempt is made to explain the disappearance, but some clues are provided. One is the fact that the disappearance occurred on St. Valentine's Day, originally a pagan festival that celebrated sexual freedom, suggesting an analogy of repressed sexuality. This is heightened by the recurring image of birds in flight and a blooming rosebud being flattened in a flower press. Another hint is the appearance of a huge red cloud over the area and a magnetic anomaly often indicative of UFO abductions. The mystery remains but the effect of the girl's disappearance is to disrupt the equilibrium of the school and hasten the crumbling of the existing social order. Beyond that it's anyone's guess and this haunting film will definitely keep you guessing long into the night. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth".

Howard Schumann
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