Starring Anne Lambert, Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, John Jarratt, Jacki Weaver, Margaret Nelson.
Original music by Bruce Smeaton.
First Release 1975; Digitally Remastered, Dirctor’s Cut 1998, (seven minutes shorter).
“On Saturday February 14th 1900 a party of schoolgirls from
So begins a film of extraordinary visual artistry, evocative moods, hints of vague menace and elusive mystery. Heralded only by wild bird-call, the one million-year-old geological enigma called Hanging Rock appears silently from behind a mist, then seems to be suspended in the sky divided by mist from any connection to the earth. A young girl’s voice quotes from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, master of mystery: “What we see, and what we seem, are but a dream. A dream within a dream”. The haunting music of a single pan flute contributes to the ethereality.
We move to the soft-focused world of young Victorian schoolgirls awaking on St Valentine’s Day morning to flowers, love poetry and golden sunlight through shutters and lace curtains. It is a dream of innocence underlined by a hint of sensuality in the virginal young Miranda, washing her face in a basin full of flowers, something wild and free amid the cultured elegance and restrictions of corsets and dignified comportment. Miranda (Anne Lambert) alone seems untouched by the repressions that constrain the girls’ whispered giggles. Idolised by her roommate, the lonely orphan Sara, she tells her gravely and prophetically that Sara will have to find someone else to love, for she will not be there much longer. Here and later in the film, she appears to be someone nurtured by the transcendent certainty of a sweet inner poetry like the wild white swan that is her visual corollary. Those who resonate with her instinctive secret knowledge either follow her or simply admire her.
Dressed in soft, white dresses, the girls gather fluttering for their picnic like so many white winged moths to the flame, drawn to the wildness and danger of the Rock with its snakes and poisonous ants as a respite from their prison of social niceties. The principal informs them that they must be back by eight pm, and that once past the township, they may remove their gloves, for the day is hot. They are in the charge of two mistresses, the elegantly beautiful French mistress Mlle Poitiers (Helen Morse) and the science and maths mistress, Miss McCraw (Vivean Grey). The only man is the dray-driver, Mr Whitehead.
Also at the picnic grounds but in a separate party are Colonel Fitzhubert, his wife and nephew Michael (Dominic Guard), and a young, vibrant John Jarratt who shines in a multi-layered performance as the chauffeur Albert. Bored by the Colonel and his wife, who have been rendered almost comatose by the heat, the rather indeterminate Michael seeks the companionship of Albert, with whom he shares a bottle of beer. As a working class man, Albert knows his place and though his appreciation of beauty is vulgarly expressed when they see the four girls who have left the main party to explore the Rock, he is content that he can freely voice what the cultured, privileged Michael may only hold unexpressed in his thoughts.
There are many echoes in this film of paintings by Australian impressionist artists of the 19th century, notably Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Frederic McCubbin, no doubt orchestrated by Director of Photography, Russell Boyd. The ochre colours, sun-bleached stillness of the Australian bush and shimmering heat reflections in a eucalyptus haze underline those themic elements so often captured in Australian art of this era, of the fragility of humans in the bush and the impossibility of their attempts to impose civilization on an alien land ancient before history. The stark beauty and uncompromising dominance of the Rock shows how much the environment itself is an overwhelming presence in this film.
The film deals tangentially with the themes of class difference and gender inequality but this is merely the background for the theme of the freedom possible only for the poetically minded or free spirited. Poor stolid, earth-bound Edith, who did not disappear with the other three, being unable to keep up with them, while they in turn seemed increasingly oblivious to her, is shown always literally looking down, while Miranda gazes up into the sky and beyond the mere appearance of things to their deeper core. The girls take off their shoes and black stockings as they are drawn further into the labyrinthine clefts of the age-old Rock by a primitive force stronger than rationality or civilisation. Miss McCraw, who has a fascination for ancient geological marvels and for the abstract beauty of geometric shapes seen in the planes and contours of the rocks, follows them later. She too is lost, being mysteriously glimpsed ascending the Rock by a terrified Edith running down to raise the alarm. Edith’s plebian soul is shocked by the sight of Miss McCraw, having discarded her heavy Victorian skirt, clad in underdrawers as she climbs the steep gradient of the Rock.
It is apparent the Rock calls imperatively to its own and repels those who do not resonate with its mysteries. Later, when Michael returns to the Rock after a week, unable to rest while the girls remain unfound, the Rock seems to emanate a force through which he must desperately push on hands and knees and crawling on his stomach. Falling into an exhausted sleep on a high ledge, he wakes with bruises and a deep gash to his forehead as though he has somehow fallen in his sleep. When eventually he is found by the reliable Albert, he is shivering with shock and mute, unable to move, hand clenched around a scrap of lace he releases only to his friend. Following this lead, Albert finds the one survivor, bleeding from a cut in exactly the same place on the forehead as Michael. The Rock has not released them unscathed or unmarked though they may be amnesiac.
The central story, being perhaps not enough to support an entire movie, is interwoven by a secondary thread of the orphan Sara and her fate as a consequence determined by the disappearance. Close to the end of the movie a narrative twist is revealed only to the audience, showing by what a sad coincidence Sara missed her life becoming quite different. Nevertheless it is the overwhelming presence of the Rock and the human interactions with it which cause those tragic ripples, affecting every person within its radius.
On the whole the characters seem to be largely unconscious or out of place as befits the illusoriness of a dream. While Miranda had an innate knowledge of the secret heart of life, some, like Michael, struggle through a fog to become conscious, as do the doctor and policeman, concerned with finding the facts of this mysterious disappearance. Some know through dreams or nightmares, while others still find their illusions stripped and cruel reality an unwelcome, unbearable alternative.
The music of the pan flute interposed with classical piano music of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach do much to define the themes of this early lyrical film of acclaimed director Peter Weir. As in others of his films (The
© Avril Carruthers 28th June, 2002
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