By Jerome Reuter
Certain films, as well as filmmakers, are essential representations of the countries they come from. Akira Kurosawa works represented Japan, Ingmar Bergman’s Represented Sweden, and David Lean’s Represented England. Which brings me to Peter Weir’s 1975 film, Picnic At Hanging Rock. I consider it a vivid illustration of Victorian-era Australia, and one of the darkest films to be committed to celluloid. However, not in the way one might think.
It’s the story of three young girls going missing, while exploring the outback on s school trip. You know what they say: curiosity killed the cat. (Although some might say it was the school bus.) The film explores a cross section of personality types, and the different types of people you’d find living in Australia at the time. Upon the surface, it might seem like just another mystery film. Much of what make this film great however, is what’s beneath the surface.
Much like other Australian films such as Walkabout, it contrasts the themes of civilization and nature. In Picnic, Weir’s camera captures the flora and fauna of the Australian wilderness. You really get a sense of how vast the outback is. I’ve always felt this is Weir letting the camera relay a subtle message; Try as we might, nature will never be completely tamed or conquered. Beneath that, I feel there’s also a subtle commentary of colonization.
Flora, fauna, and the outback aside, there’s something else this film has that makes it quite memorable. We’re shown the darker side of the Victorian age. With a good amount of the story, taking place at a boarding school, we really get to see what might have gone on behind closed doors. Far from the stereotypical posh image, we’re taken into a world of child abuse, and discipline bordering on the sadistic.
Weir even takes a subtle approach, to comment on the sexual repression of the time period. At a time when things of this nature were kept behind closed doors, he shines a light into the closet. Very little is out in the open, for a casual viewer to notice right away. It’s simply a matter of paying close attention. Although, I must say, some scenes are less subtle than others.
The problem most audiences had with this one was the ending. As I’ve stated before, American film audiences have trouble dealing with an unhappy ending. The ending isn’t particularly unhappy, but it’s unresolved. I honestly feel, that it fits perfectly, and really drives the film home. The fact that the girls are never found leaves us to wonder what really happened to them. It’s always good to see a film invoke thought from the audience. You don’t have to tell them everything.
Picnic At Hanging Rock is a great film. Simply put, Australian filmmaking at its best.