The opening frames of Peter Weir’s film contrast the natural permanence of Hanging Rock with the man-made elevation of Appleyard College. This has led viewers to read the immutability of the Australian landscape against the transience of the imperial project and settler ideology represented by the girls’ school. It is curious that an institution for girls run by a widow could be said to stand for rapacious white Australia, but its veneer of civilisation is soon scratched to reveal horror, neglect and chaos, such as the violence inflicted on “doomed” orphan Sara.
The opening juxtaposition is not as stark or predictable as many viewers remember. Hanging Rock is not shown whole, in a clear “objective” view, but is obscured before the credits begin, a primordial, pre-linguistic entity. It emerges, fades and re-emerges from a shroud of mist, in flux, seen through dissolves, framing elements of the surrounding landscape and from different viewpoints and scored by a soundtrack of birdsong that gives way to a churning noise that suggests at once a source of mystic unrest, the sound of distant wind, the vortex of nature, and the throbbing made by a seashell placed against the ear (as Edith does when she leaves the school for good near the end). Appleyard College, rooted in its well-kept English garden, with panpipes on the soundtrack and the students in an apparent trance, seems unchanging and at one with the landscape. This, of course, is a question of perception – the College stands for one unyielding, unchanging idea, whereas Hanging Rock is a blank screen onto which is projected an entire culture’s fears. Once the picnic and its fallout provoke extremes of human reaction, the rock, indifferent to dissolves and slow-motion, re-asserts its unyielding permanence, whereas Appleyard College begins its decline into darkness and disorder, mirroring the murderous breakdown of its foundress.
A seashell’s sound is not, of course, that of a magical, distant sea, but the throb of one’s own blood. The opening shots imply that the floridly romantic “style” is not necessarily that of the film as a whole, but an idea of the kind of visual representation a group of isolated, intelligent, impressionable, hormonal young women might make. Such representations in the film include the scrapbooks kept by Sara, the valentine cards created by all the girls, the love poems they recite in Pre-Raphaelite poses, and the flower pressing of Marion. These articulations, together with allusions to contemporary sun-saturated paintings, the illustrated “girls’ stories” of Louise Mack, fairytales and dreams, summon an internalised, Utopian realm that occludes the outside world, and is movingly evoked in the credit sequence, its pictorial timelessness framed by two textual statements of time and place.
Kept in such a hothouse environment, it is not surprising that the students are shielded from knowledge of the native culture their forebears tried to obliterate. It would have been more problematic in 1975 for the film to share such blind spots. This seems a little unfair; no one asked The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Bruce Beresford, 1972) or Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam, 1975) to bear the entire burden of Australian history. Like source novelist Joan Lindsay, Weir offered a formal contrast to the students’ myopic intensity. Lindsay’s ironies pierced the suffocating atmosphere of Appleyard College with a playful insistence on the story’s “textiness” and a comic wrongfooting of the nominally superior reader. Weir finds a less intrusive way to remain true to both his heroines and the novelist’s pattern making by employing a complex matrix of sound (evoking the genres of horror and science fiction) and image.
The most resonant pattern of images links motifs across time and space with the colour red, such as the rose seen in the credit sequence in the vase of flowers beside Miranda and Sara’s window – like the birds, an analogue for the beautiful, vulnerable, herded and tended girls – which becomes the red flower on Mrs Appleyard’s desk as she prepares Sara for the expulsion that will lead to her murder and dumping in a greenhouse of artificially nurtured blooms. A significant thread of this motif ties bright red coats worn by the Aboriginal tracker who helps the search for the missing women, the soldiers at the Colonel’s garden party guarding the Governor (representative of the British Crown), and Irma, whose visit to her classmates after her rescue degenerates into hysteric mob violence, and obscures the binding of Sara at the back of the hall.
The problem with indirection as an artistic strategy is that it can be easily mistaken for evasion. And so the red line of Empire, native dispossession, female sexuality, child abuse and group violence that braids the text is safely displaced, and not allowed to interfere with the middlebrow pleasures of Picnic at Hanging Rock as a period drama. It seems the anguish of pretty white girls in pretty white frocks was considered more palatable for international consumption than the representation of a violently marginalised civilisation. Domestic audiences were a different matter: just before making Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir directed an episode of the TV series Luke’s Kingdom, “The Dam and the Damned”, which was more brutally upfront about the violence inflicted on Aborigines by white (male) expansionism. Picnic at Hanging Rock is haunted by similar guilt, but like a good mystery story shores itself up with red herrings in order to displace it.