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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)



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Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock is a masterpiece of mood. Of setting, too, because if this story were transported to some other time or place, it would not be the same story at all. But what is the story? Reviews have a hard time pinning it down. It's said to be about some girls at an Australian boarding school who disappear during an outing, but that's only the part that can be conveyed in words.

What the film is really about is something more elusive and personal. Roger Ebert compares it to David Lean's A Passage To India and identifies sexual hysteria in a repressed society as a common theme. He writes: "The underlying suggestion is that Victorian attitudes toward sex, coupled with the unsettling mysteries of an ancient land, lead to events the modern mind cannot process." It's an accurate and remarkably perceptive observation, and yet it still fails to pin down the peculiar spell this movie weaves. It's easy enough to conceive of an entirely different interpretation of the film that would be as convincing. There is nothing overtly sexual in the film, for instance, nor anything overtly supernatural. There's really nothing overt in this at all, which is maybe why it is so haunting: with a simple nudge in one direction or another, we could invent some closure for ourselves, with the confidence that, even if we haven't figured out all the details, we're at least on the right track. But as it is, with such an intimidatingly wide range of possibilities open before us, and the only thing we truly know is how much we don't know -- that's scary.

But solving the mystery isn't the point. The point is that there is one. That the mysteries of the human heart are impenetrable enough on their own, as are the mysteries of lands older and wiser than we are. Put the two together, and who knows what can happen.