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Film / Picnic at Hanging Rock

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A 1975 Australian mystery/drama film by Peter Weir of the Australian New Wave. It is a film adaptation of Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock.

It tells the story of an ill-fated outing undertaken by Australian girls enrolled at an exclusive finishing school. The students of Appleyard College are permitted to spend Valentine's Day 1900 at Hanging Rock (an actual geological formation in the countryside northwest of Melbourne), collecting information for an essay to be written upon their return. After being granted permission by their French mistress, four girls — Miranda, Marion, Irma and Edith — set off to explore the upper slopes of the rock. Wandering through the maze-like tunnels, Edith discovers that the others appear to have fallen into a trance; the trio have, as one, removed their shoes and stockings, and proceed to drift into another narrow passage. Fearful, Edith runs back to get help. Mathematics teacher Miss McCraw heads up to fetch them, however, teacher and students disappear without a trace. The remainder of the story deals with a not-very-successful police investigation into the matter, turmoil at the school in its aftermath, and two young men who were also at Hanging Rock that day, who become entangled in the tale: English aristocrat Michael and his Australian valet Albert.


The film features visually hypnotic photography by Oscar winner Russel Boyd and a haunting score by Bruce Smeaton (featuring the playing of the "Master of the Pan Flute", Gheorghe Zamfir), and established Weir as a major international talent. It was also massively popular in its home country, finishing as the third highest-grossing film of 1975 at the Australian box office (behind Jaws and The Towering Inferno).

In 2018 a miniseries adaptation of the book was released, starring Natalie Dormer as Mrs. Appleyard.


The film provides examples of:

  • Acquitted Too Late: A variation. Mrs. Appleyard decides to send Sara back to an orphanage after her tuition payments stop coming in, leading to Sara's apparent suicide. Not long later, her benefactor sends the money, apologizing for his tardiness.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film cuts out several features of the book, such as Irma meeting both Albert and Michael after her recovery, Miss Lumley's resignation and fate, the appearance of Sara's benefactor (sadly too late) and the Where Are They Now epilogue. The book also gives far more detail to Mrs. Appleyard's fate, making it a question of whether or not the ghost she saw was real or just an alcoholic hallucination, rather than another mystery regarding Hanging Rock.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: Miss Lumley is an outright Jerkass in the books and is loathed and mocked by the students. In the film, she's more of a dowdy, brown-nosing coward, her lack of popularity stemming more from her spinster appearance.
  • Adapted Out: Miss Lumley's brother is absent from the film adaptation; as her fate from the books is cut, he served no real narrative purpose.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Irma's feelings for Mlle. de Poitiers, Mlle. de Poitier's feelings for both Irma and Miranda, Sara's feelings for Miranda, Albert's feelings for Irma, Irma's feelings for Michael, Michael's feelings for Miranda...
  • All There in the Manual: The first name of Mlle. de Poitiers (Dianne) is only revealed in the novel.
  • Ambiguous Ending:
    • Mrs Appleyard dies on Hanging Rock, but was it an accident or suicide?
    • In the deleted scenes from the ending the ghost of Sara appears - she could be a vengeful spirit or Mrs Appleyard's hallucination. It isn't ever made clear whether her death was an accident, suicide or murder, either.
    • Not to mention the central mystery, which is never solved: what the hell happened to the missing girls and their teacher?
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Irma, who's also far the richest of her peers, is a Rothschild on her mother's side and described as a dark-haired beauty - in a school of blondes - with dark eyes and typical black curly hair.
  • Animal Motifs:
    • In Michael's dreams Miranda is represented by a swan. Sarah's valentine to Miranda also has a swan on it.
    • Insects appear at several key points, from the ants devouring the leftover Valentine's cake to the praying mantis seen after Sara's death.
    • Irma compares Sarah to a deer she once looked after. She even explicitly describes it as having been "doomed to die".
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Edith is 14, while Miranda, Marion and Irma are all 17, and the other girls, especially Marion, regard Edith this way.
  • Artistic License – History: Valentine's Day 1900 was a Wednesday, not a Saturday. But, since it's a story about the deceptive nature of time and reality, this may have been an intentional anomaly.note  A related Genius Bonus is that having Valentine's on Saturday means that the day before would've been Friday the 13th.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: It's almost guaranteed that anytime the film/book is brought up/read/watched, someone's going to claim it actually happened. It didn't.note 
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Miranda and Mlle. de Poitiers' amazingly good looks are frequently commented upon, hand in hand with references to their goodness and purity, whereas Miss Lumley and Edith are ugly both inside and out.
  • Being Watched: The narration in the book suggests the picnickers are being watched by Hanging Rock itself. The film replicates this idea with looming shots of the rock. Parts of the rock actually seem to resemble faces.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Close-ups of the ants and other bugs crawling all over the food that the girls have brought to the picnic.
  • Boarding School: Appleyard College, a girls' finishing school.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: Appleyard College is not an overtly awful place, but there's obvious tension going on behind the scenes. Mrs. Appleyard is implied to be a Con Artist who's only in it for the money. Her personal Butt-Monkey, Sara, is targeted mainly because her guardian hasn't kept up the tuition payments. The competent staffers (McCraw, de Poitiers) are forced to work around the incompetents (Appleyard, Lumley).
  • Butt-Monkey: Pretty much every character within the narrative as well as the narration itself mocks Edith mercilessly.
  • Bury Your Gays: Sara, who clearly was in love with beautiful Miranda, flings herself out a window of the college.
  • Class Trip: The titular picnic at Hanging Rock.
  • Clock King: Mrs. Appleyard is associated with clocks and watches throughout. Note also that at Hanging Rock, everyone's watches stop.
  • Con Artist: In the novel it's clear that Mrs. Appleyard had no genuine qualifications to run a school, but by cultivating an air of English respectability and looking like a headmistress, she managed to make money off wealthy Australian parents looking for a place to send their daughters. The film downplays this, but leaves a few hints (like her lack of knowledge about poetry).
  • Covert Pervert: When Albert is making comments about the girls:
    Michael: I'd rather you didn't say crude things like that, Albert.
    Albert: I say the crude things; you just think them.
  • Cultural Cringe: The whole point of the boarding school is to train the girls to behave like proper English ladies. The attempts by the English to maintain cultural hegemony over Australia as the Victorian Era drew to a close is a major subtext of the story.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: A teacher and group of students venture into the Australian wilderness on a picnic. Something out there claims the girls one by one, and they're never seen again.
  • Downer Ending: Miss McCraw, Marion, and Miranda vanish forever, and Sara and Mrs. Appleyard both end up committing suicide. The Lumleys burn to death in a hotel fire, Edith dies a few years after the events of the novel, and the surviving characters all live apart and don't see each other again.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sara kills herself after abuse and the probable death of her beloved Miranda. Mrs. Appleyard also throws herself off of a precipice after seeing the ghost of Sara.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Michael only sees Miranda from a distance for a few seconds and doesn't even talk to her, but immediately becomes infatuated with her and voluntary goes out to look for her, despite all the dangers involved.
  • Even the Girls Want Her:
    • Seemingly everyone at the school has a crush on Miranda, but, of course, it's much, much deeper than that for Sara.
    • Similarly, the girls seem infatuated with Mlle. de Poitiers, who's not much older than they are.
  • The Film of the Book: An unusually faithful example.
  • Foreshadowing: Miranda telling Sara at the beginning that "I won't be here much longer". She was referring to the fact the she'd be graduating soon, but it takes on a new meaning when you know what happens to her.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: The four girls who climb the rock—Miranda (Choleric), Marion (Melancholic), Irma (Phlegmatic) and Edith (Sanguine).
  • Freudian Slip:
    • When Michael is questioned by the police about the girl he at first confirms having seen three girls and later he corrects himself saying that actually there were four. He forgot about Edith, the unattractive fat girl.
    • Michael and Irma on their Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date:
      Irma: The summer will soon be over.
      Michael: Just as well, probably. I don't think this punt will be safe enough to take out again.
      Irma: It's sad, really. Like someone died.
      [They both look very awkward]
      Irma: I mean the summer. The end of the summer is like ...
  • Gaussian Girl: Russell Boyd reportedly enhanced the film's diffuse and ethereal look with the simple technique of placing a piece of bridal veil over the camera lens.
  • Genius Loci: Hanging Rock. Maybe.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners:
    • Late in the movie Mrs. Appleyard realizes, to her own annoyance, how much she had come to rely on Ms. McCraw and her "masculine intellect".
    • Michael and Albert. They go to Queensland together at the end of the book.
  • Hope Spot: Two letters are written to Sara that could have helped her out of her situation; her art teacher offers to take care of her if her guardian continues to fail making payments, and her guardian eventually reappears, explains his whereabouts, pays her tuition and offers her a place to stay for the holiday. Tom forgets to deliver the first letter and the second arrives only after Sara's suicide.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Mrs. Appleyard throws one back after Miss Lumley hands in her resignation.
  • I Will Find You: Michael is obsessed with finding the girls, particularly Miranda.
  • Jerkass:
    • Mrs. Appleyard, who cares little for the children, and openly hates some of them - when the girls disappear, the closest she comes to a heartfelt emotion is anger that it happened to girls of eminent social standing whose families would be trouble to deal with, and irritation that it didn't happen to others she would rather have been rid of.
    • Miss Lumley, who ties Sara against a wall to correct her posture (although on Mrs. Appleyard's orders, and she seems to feel bad about it).
  • Karmic Death: Mrs. Appleyard.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: Sara is badly depressed after Miranda's disappearance, so Mrs. Appleyard decides that now would be a good time to send her back to the orphanage.
  • Lady in Red: Irma when she last visits the school. Whatever happens at Hanging Rock seems to have something to do with the girls' blooming sexuality. Irma, the only one of the four to be found, wears a scarlet dress upon her return, in contrast to the drab outfits of the girls that study there.
  • Long Lost Sibling: Sara and Albert. They both come from the Ballarat orphanage, but Albert aged out of the system and Sara (almost 10 years younger than her brother) was eventually adopted by a rich man.
  • Love at First Sight: Michael falls for Miranda immediately while seeing her hike to Hanging Rock.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Irma and Mlle. de Poitiers are heavily implied to have some unrequited feelings going on between each other, though the latter makes similar lovestruck comments about Miranda, though she's also engaged to be married. Sara is also in love with Miranda, though Miranda doesn't seem to reciprocate with anyone. Albert is attracted to Irma, who falls in love with Michael, who had a Love at First Sight moment with Miranda he never quite gets over.
  • Never Found the Body: Two of the three girls and the teacher who disappeared at the rock are never found.
  • Noble Male, Roguish Male: Sheltered Aristocrat Michael and rugged working class Albert.
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Michael and Irma have one; it doesn't go well. The scene was deleted in the Re-Cut.
  • One Degree of Separation: Sara and Albert are long-lost siblings, but never learn of each other's presence in Woodend. If Sara had been allowed to go to the picnic, they probably would have been reunited.
  • One-Gender School: Mrs Appleyard's College for Young Ladies. Justified in that it's 1900 and upper-class schools were almost always single-gender.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In-universe. When Sara talks about her time in the orphanage, her posh, cultivated accent slips into something more distinctly Australian.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Sara was abandoned by her parents, separated from her brother and is openly loathed by the college headmistress, who makes her quit her art classes and taunts her about the prospect of her returning to a nightmarish orphanage should her guardian continue to fail to make payments. Miranda's disappearance doesn't help. It ultimately becomes too much for her, and she kills herself.
  • Police Are Useless: While Sergeant Bumpher and his deputies provide a very thorough investigation, ultimately they're as baffled as anyone about the disappearances.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The book is quite short (just under 200 pages) and squeezes in a huge cast. The film stays faithful to the main story outline (with the fate of Miss Lumley being the major change), but wisely focuses on just a handful of the characters after the disappearance (Mrs. Appleyard, Sara, Mlle. de Poitiers, Michael, Albert, Sgt. Bumpher). It also places the revelation that Albert and Sara are siblings at a key point in the final act, while the book just tosses out hints about it early on and never really follows up on them.
  • Re-Cut: Weir's director's cut removes about eight minutes from the film, with the Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date scene as the major victim. (Sadly, only the director's cut is available in America, one of the few times The Criterion Collection has really dropped the ball. Many viewers find the original theatrical cut to be superior. There is a UK DVD available with both versions of the film.)
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni:
    • Michael (Blue) is young but still full of British Stuffiness. His Australian valet Albert (Red) is a quintessentially unrefined larrikin.
    • The teachers who chaperone the girls on the picnic—pleasant, friendly, outgoing Mlle. de Poitiers (Red) and dour, serious, Stoic Miss McCraw (Blue).
  • Rescue Romance: Most of people in town assume that is what's going on between Michael and Irma, but since he was really looking for Miranda instead, it doesn't pan out. Irma does fall in love with him, however. On the other hand, Albert is attracted to Irma and is the one to physically rescue her from the Rock, but knows things will never work out between them.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The fate of the girls and their teacher, plus the questions of how Irma survived, and why Edith wasn't compelled to go along with the others.
  • Same Language Dub: Peter Weir had very specific ideas on how the girls would look, and used them to guide his casting of the film. After an extensive search he hired a mostly Amateur Cast, and many of them had trouble delivering their lines properly. The actresses playing Edith and Irma in particular ended up needing to have their lines dubbed in post by other actresses.
  • Scare Chord: When Albert finds Michael catatonic after staying overnight on the rock, we get a scare chord which sounds like a bird call.
  • Secret Relationship: Minnie and Tom are carrying on an affair and are married in the epilogue.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Sarah is sensitive and cultured while Albert is hot blooded and barely manages to write. Justified because Sarah become the ward of a rich man who paid for her education while Albert spent his childhood as a Street Urchin until being old enough to get a job.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Albert.
    "If the bloody cop and the bloody abo tracker and the bloody dog can't find 'em, well, no one bloody can."
  • Situational Sexuality: The girls don't have any outlet for their burgeoning feelings except each other.
  • Sole Survivor: Irma is found, but has no memory of what happened on the rock.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the book, Miss Lumley and her brother are killed in a freak accident after the former quits her job. This was cut from the film.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Michael is in shock when Albert finds him after he stayed overnight at the rock.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: One theory posits that those who disappeared at the Rock were closer to earth and nature and less preoccupied with material surroundings, whereas Irma and Michael failed to be taken because their identities were so closely tied with their wealth.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Mlle. de Poitiers goes from being a passive observer of the fallout of the incident at the Rock to threatening to club Miss Lumley after she does nothing to help Irma.
  • Trail of Bread Crumbs: Michael leaves paper tags in the bushes as he climbs the rock.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia:
    • Edith runs out of the bushes screaming her head off, but can't provide any details as to why.
    • Irma is recovered from the rock, scratched and bruised, but can't remember anything about what happened.
    • Michael too is in no fit state to answer questions after his time on the rock.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: We never learn how or why the girls vanished.
  • Valentine's Day Violence: The mysterious disappearance of the girls at Appleyard College happens at a Valentine's Day picnic on Hanging Rock. It befits the sense of sexual repression that motivates the rest of the story, and the disappearance is never solved or answered, ultimately causing two more deaths in the aftermath.
  • The kickstarter for the plot for Some Like It Hot was when musicians Joe and Jerry witnessing the Valentine's Day Massacre, and fearing for their lives, dressed up as women and joining an all-girls jazz band.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Mrs. Appleyard starts drinking more and loses grip on her finely manicured appearance as the novel wears on.
  • Weather Dissonance: Since they're in the Southern Hemisphere, the concept of Valentine's Day as a summer holiday takes some getting used to if you're a viewer from the Northern Hemisphere.
  • White Shirt of Death: At the end of the film, Sara dies in her white nightdress.