Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Picnic at Hanging Rock

Australian movie (1975). HEF/South Australian Film Corporation/Australian Film Commission/Picnic Productions. Pr Hal McElroy, Jim McElroy. Exec pr John Graves, Patricia Lovell. Dir Peter Weir. Screenplay Cliff Green. Based on Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay (1896-1984). Starring Vivean Gray (Greta McCraw), Dominic Guard (Michael Fitzhubert), John Jarrett (Albert Crundall), Anne Lambert (Miranda), Helen Morse (Mlle de Portiers), Margaret Nelson (Sara), Rachel Roberts (Mrs Appleyard), Karen Robson (Irma Leopold), Christine Schuler (Edith Horton), Jane Vallis (Marion), Martin Vaughan (Ben Hussey). 115 mins. Colour.

On Valentine's Day 1900 the pupils of Appleyard College, Victoria, are sent on an expedition to picnic in the woods around Hanging Rock, a local crag; kept behind from the treat is orphan Sara, who has a crush on the beautiful Miranda. Oddly, the party's watches stop at noon. Four girls – Miranda, Marion, Irma and Edith – set off for the summit; the first three become infected by the mystical, acting as if in a trance, audaciously removing their boots and stockings. Edith, accompanying them on sufferance, becomes terrified by whatever is affecting the rest, and flees downslope, on her way seeing governess McCraw ascending stripped to her (plentiful) underwear; later she recalls also having seen a mysterious red cloud. The party returns to the College, having hunted McCraw and the three girls in vain. Also on the rock were visiting Englishman Michael with the Fitzhubert family driver Albert, another orphan; Michael, captivated on sight by Miranda, followed them uphill a small way. Police searches of the Rock reveal nothing; a week later the obsessed Michael goes with Albert on a private search, and eventually Albert discovers Irma, still alive but concussed and, although "intact", missing her corset – and, it soon proves, her memory of any relevant event. The mystery creates hysteria among the pupils, triggered into near-riot by the return of Irma, who is now obviously a woman rather than a girl, as if having gone through a Rite of Passage. Meanwhile, Appleyard – her school's future in ruins – victimizes the bereft Sara. At last Sara suicides, unknowing that her long-lost brother Albert is, in every sense, so near; he has a clairvoyant Dream of her saying farewell to him. Michael, still seeing Ghosts of Miranda, determines to leave the area; and soon Appleyard is found dead at the base of Hanging Rock, presumably having fallen while attempting to climb it – to beg forgiveness from Miranda for the death of Sara? The three missing girls are never found.

PAHR, in several senses a fantasy of Perception, is a movie whose ambience abides long in the memory: it has a slow beauty, a perfection that renders it the visual equivalent of Magic Realism – a comparison enhanced by its subterfuge of presenting a fiction as if it were based on a true incident. PAHR's linchpins are the personality and image of Miranda and of the Rock itself, its outcrops all too often seeming grim, ancient, secretive faces. [JG]

further reading: The Murders at Hanging Rock (1980) by Yvonne Rousseau (1945-    ), a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the novel, also casts some light on the movie; The Films of Peter Weir (1993) by Don Shiach contains an extended discussion. (The novel's overtly fantastic final chapter – cut before publication – was published as The Secret of Hanging Rock [1987 chap])

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.