Peter Weir is not one of my favorite filmmakers. I was baffled by the acclaim his 1977 film, The Last Wave (my first exposure to his work), received and even more perplexed when I read Weir’s explanation of the film’s ending — that the final freeze frame of Richard Chamberlain symbolized the impending end of the white race. I remain mystified by the praise and skeptical of his explanation to this day.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, which appeared two years before The Last Wave — and is considered to be the first internationally successful Australian film — is not wholly dissimilar, though I find it more persuasive, in part because Weir never tried to explain what it all meant. On Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of schoolgirls and two teachers set out from their hothouse college environment for a picnic in the strange Australian wilderness. Three of the girls and a teacher disappear without explanation. One of the girls shows up later, but is unable to shed any light on what happened — nor is the film. But that is the intention.
There are undercurrents to it all — hints of sexual repression, of the inability of genteel civilization to exist in the ancient wilderness, etc. — and the film allows the viewer to read as much or as little as he or she wants into the proceedings. It’s typical of Weir’s work in thematic terms. Weir’s films almost invariably center on characters who are out of place in the world they inhabit.
But in the end, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a compelling mood piece that is most effective in its ability to create the Victorian equivalent of an urban myth — an unsolvable mystery that hints at dark imaginings that never happened, but which we are persuaded might have happened. And like an urban myth, the appeal lies in the fact that it has no explanation.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke